It is perplexing how conversations on social media tend to be a lot more vitriolic than those we experience offline with the same individuals. Apparently, there is a reason for it and understanding the same can help us have better and more civilised conversations online. This piece in The Guardian is an adaptation from Ian Leslie’s latest book on the subject – “Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together”. Leslie begins by helping us understand why there is nothing wrong with disagreements as they are crucial for progress but it is just that online media tends to make it confrontational with natural obstacles for a win-win solution. He recommends we consider ‘disagreeing’ as a skill we can learn using techniques used in related fields such as hostage negotiations.
“If humans were purely rational entities, we would listen politely to an opposing view before offering a considered response. In reality, disagreement floods our brain with chemical signals that make it hard to focus on the issue at hand. The signals tell us that this is an attack on me. “I disagree with you” becomes “I don’t like you”. Instead of opening our minds to the other’s point of view, we focus on defending ourselves.
Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy. We can use it to turn vague notions into actionable ideas, blind spots into insights, distrust into empathy. Instead of putting our differences aside, we need to put them to work.
To do so, we will have to overcome a widespread discomfort with disagreement. Disagreeing well is hard, and for most of us, stressful. But perhaps if we learn to see it as a skill in its own right, rather than as something that comes naturally, we might become more at ease with it. I believe we have a lot to learn from those who manage adversarial, conflict-ridden situations for a living; people whose job it is to wring information, insight and human connection out of even the most hostile encounter.”
He introduces us to the concept of ‘face-work’:
“…“face” is the public image a person wants to establish in a social interaction. We put effort into establishing the appropriate face for each encounter: the face you want to show a potential boss will be different to the face you want to show someone on a date. This effort is face-work.
People skilled in the art of disagreement don’t just think about their own face; they’re highly attuned to the other’s face. One of the most powerful social skills is the ability to give face; to confirm the public image that the other person wishes to project. In any conversation, when the other person feels their desired face is being accepted and confirmed, they’re going to be a lot easier to deal with, and more likely to listen to what you have to say.
The hostage-taker in an expressive scenario is usually on edge, emotionally – angry, desperate, deeply insecure, and liable to act in unpredictable ways.
Negotiators are taught to soothe and reassure the hostage-taker before getting to the negotiation. William Donohue, a professor of communication at the University of Michigan, has spent decades studying conflict-ridden conversations – some successful, some failed – involving terrorists, pirates, and people on the brink of suicide. He talked to me about a key component of face: how powerful a person feels. Hostage-takers in expressive situations want their importance to be recognised in some way – to have their status acknowledged.
When a hostage-taker feels dominated, he is more likely to resort to violence. “That’s when words fail,” Donohue told me. “In effect, the hostage-taker says: ‘You haven’t acknowledged respect for me, so I have to gain it by controlling you physically.’” People will go to great, even self-destructive lengths to avoid the perception that they are being walked over.
Instead of looking for solutions that might work for everyone, they treat every negotiation as a zero-sum game in which someone must win and the other must lose. Instead of engaging with the content, they attack the person as a way of asserting their status.
By contrast, there are those who enter a negotiation expecting to succeed because they are, or perceive themselves to be, in the stronger position. They may well therefore adopt a more relaxed and expansive approach, focusing on the substance of the disagreement and looking for win-win solutions. They may also take more risks with their face, making moves that might otherwise be seen as weak, offering a more friendly and conciliatory dialogue. Since they don’t fear losing face, they can reach out a hand.
When a debate becomes volatile and dysfunctional, it’s often because someone in the conversation feels they are not getting the face they deserve. This helps to explain the pervasiveness of bad temper on social media, which can sometimes feel like a status competition in which the currency is attention. On Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, anyone can get likes, retweets or new followers – in theory. But although there are exceptions, it is actually very hard for people who are not already celebrities to build a following. Gulled by the promise of high status, users then get angry when status is denied. Social media appears to give everyone an equal chance of being heard. In reality, it is geared to reward a tiny minority with massive amounts of attention, while the majority has very little. The system is rigged.
….When we’re in an argument with someone, we should be thinking about how they can change their mind and look good – maintain or even enhance their face – at the same time. Often this is very hard to do in the moment of the dispute itself, when opinion and face are bound even more tightly together than they are before or after (the writer Rachel Cusk defines an argument as “an emergency of self-definition”). However, by showing that we have listened to and respected our interlocutor’s point of view, we make it more likely that they will come around at some later point. If and when they do, we should avoid scolding them for not agreeing with us all along. It’s amazing quite how often people in polarised debates do this; it hardly makes it more tempting to switch sides. Instead, we should remember that they have achieved something we have not: a change of mind.”
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