How To Talk, Listen, and Argue More Effectively
Being a more effective communicator is not as simple as we'd like to think, but it's not rocket surgery either.
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I have been talking for as long as anyone who knows me can remember.
My parents tell me that as a toddler, I was unusually verbally precocious. If the legends are true, I knew my whole alphabet at 18 months, and was, at that same tender young age, speaking in complete sentences. People thought I was some kind of party trick.
“What do you do, use flash cards with him?” one of my uncles asked my mother.
But it wasn’t that. Married young, a stay-at-home mother by the age of 19, Mom was stuck in the house with me all day without a lot to do. It was the late 1970s, and our entertainment options were consequently pretty lousy.
So we talked a lot, and read lots of books.
In fifth grade, I won an all-school writing contest. In sixth, I was chosen to do the daily announcements over the PA system every morning at school. By seventh grade, I made it to the regionals in the spelling bee. I had a popular newspaper column in college. After graduation, I worked in PR and corporate communications. I went from one writing milestone to another over the years, finally attaining the holy grail in my late 30s: making a living with my words.
And yet, even with all of that, sometimes I’m a terrible communicator. And frankly, I’d like to get better at it.
Honesty - The Best Policy, In Moderation
We have all things we do that make communication with others difficult, even though we often don’t realize it. We’ve got coping mechanisms, limiting beliefs, defensive postures, the habitual but insincere niceties of polite conversation, and selective (and often subconscious) dishonesty — with others and with ourselves.
Through all of it, we try to weave a narrative in our heads that makes it all seem like a cohesive whole. We want desperately to believe that we make sense, that we’ve got our shit together, that we know how to act in various kinds of situations, that we have social graces and are capable of being liked, and that our opinions matter.
Most of us, if we’re being honest, are pretty desperate for external validation. And that absolutely affects what version of ourselves we show to the world.
A great deal of this is really very self-focused, if understandable. We keep our inner dialogue — the stuff we think people would deem us crazy if they had access to — hidden like dirty laundry under the bed, and we only let people see what we want them to see.
Writing at The Atlantic, Michael Leviton, author of the book To Be Honest, talks about how he grew up in a home where honesty — about everything — was the law of the land.
“I had no sense that a question could be considered inappropriate,” writes Leviton, “or that anyone would refuse to answer. Even when I was 4 and 5, Dad would respond to my curiosity with long-winded history and philosophy, explaining things such as the scientific method or the subconscious mind, or telling details from his own life and feelings that many would have kept hidden.”
“Everyone else was well acquainted with the countless good reasons to hold their tongues,” Leviton continues, “but my parents and I couldn’t fathom them. Why wouldn’t you want to hear what others thought? Why wouldn’t you tell them what you thought? For us, it seemed as if people didn’t want to really know one another.”
For Leviton, the commitment to radical honesty didn’t last very long into adulthood. At age 22, he moved to New York, and immediately ran into problems finding a job. “The nicer interviewers would get concerned and offer sincere advice,” he writes, “telling me that when asked about my biggest flaw, I wasn’t supposed to actually list my flaws. When I told them I hoped some employers would appreciate my honesty, most laughed.”
But then he fell in love with someone who shared his passion for honesty:
We talked constantly, sharing our most bizarre feelings, observations, and opinions; telling stories from our pasts; feeling known and understood. But talking through everything also meant obsessing over what otherwise would have been fleeting emotions. Expressing feelings regardless of how they might affect the other person often felt self-centered and uncaring. I’d gotten what I’d always wanted and found that I couldn’t take it. After six years together, we broke up, and in my heart-wrecked state, I decided that my truth-telling had caused enough destruction, that it was no longer worth it. There must be things others knew that I didn’t, I thought, reasons why dishonesty made others genuinely happy. So, the following New Year’s, at the age of 29, I resolved to be “less honest.”
Leviton relates that he began his departure from overbearing honesty by first transgressing the boundaries of truthfulness during small talk. “I asked the same safe questions the people around me asked,” he says, “and pretended to be satisfied with vague or avoidant answers. I’d stuff my hands in my pockets so no one would see the involuntary clenching and shaking when I held back the truth.” He found it difficult, but effective. And then…
After years of feeling torn between my old ways and my new ones, I got over my discomfort at participating in the dishonest world and started to see why people spared one another the truth. As I experimented with small talk, I noticed how others used honesty to establish intimacy. I’d always seen “hiding feelings” as cowardly, but for other people, the selectiveness of their honesty was what gave it meaning. They’d choose who was special enough to hear their secrets. My indiscriminate, automatic honesty had meant that I’d tell a personal story the same way to a stranger as I would to my closest friend; that cheapened anything I shared. Anyone who loved me wanted to see a side that I didn’t show others, but I hadn’t saved one for them. Immediate honesty was impatient; if I wanted people to be honest with me, I had to earn it.
That part in bold really hit home for me. That’s who I’ve always been: overly trusting, overly willing to share personal details, always with my heart on my sleeve. It makes the kind of writing I do — personal, even confessional — come out better; but it also creates complications in my life that I naively never seem to see coming.
And while I haven’t exactly resolved to be less honest, I have resolved to be less open. At least in my interactions with people who haven’t earned my trust. I used to crowdsource my secrets, not choose who was special enough to hear them. I realize now that this was a mistake, and also an unintended insult to the people closest to me.
I’m living proof that it’s possible to be good with words, but still not really know how to talk to people. And that’s the thread that I want to tug at a bit more right now.
EQ and the Three-Question Rule
He describes EQ as “making emotions work for you, instead of against you.”
People with a high EQ are “highly conscious of their own emotional states, even negative ones—from frustration or sadness to something more subtle.” They are also less likely to be “impulsive or hasty with their actions. They think before they do.”
This also makes high-EQ people better at sensing and dealing with emotion in others. (And yes, if you’re wondering, high-EQ people tend to be very empathetic.)
Writing at Inc., Bariso says he once heard the comedian and late night talk show host Craig Ferguson lay down — in the context of a joke — his rules for the three things we should always ask ourselves before speaking:
Does this need to be said?
Does this need to be said by me?
Does this need to be said by me, now?
“Ferguson's goal was to get a laugh,” writes Bariso. “But let me tell you something: This is a brilliant tool that will immediately sharpen your emotional intelligence.”
This simple three-question checklist is something Leviton clearly could have benefited from in his youth. Returning to his story for a second, we can see why:
When I say that I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful, many assume that I used honesty as an excuse to insult people; I’m aware that there are many such people, going around insisting that they’re “just being honest” when they’re actually being cruel. My honesty did occasionally offend people, such as if I admitted that I’d forgotten someone’s name or if I didn’t feign interest when I was bored. But insulting people wasn’t nearly as much of a problem as making them uncomfortable. Even close friends would squirm when I’d gush about how much I liked them or when I’d tell a personal story that moved me to tears. I got the impression that, after having dealt with me, most would have preferred to have been insulted.
When I was a younger man, full, as the old saying goes, of spit and vinegar, I recall replying to someone who cautioned me to choose my battles with, “Why should I bother doing that when I have enough energy to fight them all?”
Wisdom and prudence are hard-earned things.
These days, after having had many of the same arguments with strangers for the better part of 30 years (and too many needless arguments with my beloved for 20 of those years, to boot) I find myself much more reticent to speak. My brain will send something up to my consciousness as a point of order, and I’ll consider it for a bit. But unless it seems like it might really make a difference, I just kick it back downstairs. Whereas I used to be notorious for getting into social media wars, now I routinely mute or ignore the people most likely to drag me into a verbal street brawl. I no longer have the energy to fight every battle. And perhaps more importantly, I no longer have the desire. The energy I’ve wasted over the years in futile debates or with “just being honest” contrarianism is something I’ll never get back. I know now how much better spent it would have been on taking care of myself, or being with the people I love. So that’s the new plan going forward.
You have the same choice. You can use the life you have to duke it out with people you’ll likely never persuade, or to build up those around you and enjoy those closest to you. Which will you choose?
What Are We Looking For in a Conversation Anyway?
“I’m absolutely terrible at small talk.”
I’ve said this line to my wife hundreds of times over the years, explaining why I don’t like hanging out in groups of people I don’t know well, and why I can’t stand forced social interactions in general.
I don’t want to talk to you about the metaphorical detritus of our quotidian existence. I’m not a farmer or a forestry worker, and in general (unless it’s too hot, too cold, or too dry) I barely spare a thought about the weather. I don’t care a whit about sports, with the exception of my New York Football Giants, and that’s a decidedly niche fan club out in my neck of the woods.
The bottom line is: I don’t come into social settings for the appetizer. I want the steak.
At Aeon, psychologist Lucy Foulkes tackles the somewhat thorny issue of meaningful conversations in a thoughtful way. Citing fellow psychologist Matthew Mehl at the University of Arizona, Foulkes says that small talk is essentially defined based on the kind of information exchanged. “If afterwards I know nothing more about you than I knew before,” says Mehl, “then that would be small talk.”
“The vacuousness of small talk,” writes Foulkes, “helps to explain why it’s so often boring…”
And yet, Foulkes explains, there’s a “a body of research that focuses on how relatively fleeting social interactions with people – even strangers – can boost our mood and even our beliefs” about our fellow man. In other words: small talk actually has a role to play, even if it’s not the main course:
[W]hile it’s important to recognise the value of small talk and that it needn’t be painful, it still falls well short of what many of us are really craving: meaningful conversation. By this, I mean conversation where we leave behind the shallows of small talk – however pleasant they might be – and dive deeper. For Mehl, who refers to these kinds of conversations as ‘substantive’, the key feature of deeper conversations is that you learn something. ‘If people start discussing information,’ he says, ‘then it becomes substantive … the most important point is that you get absorbed in the conversation, there’s information, there’s learning.’
We derive meaning from understanding ourselves because of the deep human need for self-expression. The social psychologist Kirsty Gardiner at the University of East London studies social interactions, and she identifies self-expression – ‘sharing key aspects of who you are as a person’ – as the first of three components that can make conversations really valuable. Most of us are hungry for an opportunity to share what we’re thinking, to clarify and explore things that matter to us. So having the chance to formulate these abstract thoughts into words, and to share them with an interested listener who validates those thoughts, helps us feel understood.
Meaningful conversations, in short, allow us to learn something important about ourselves, about the other person, or about the world – and, when this happens, we come away feeling better understood and connected with those around us.
In Mehl’s research, a correlation was discovered between more substantive conversations in a person’s life and a higher sense of life conversation.
But for people like me, who want to skip right to the main course, there’s a reason to slow our roll.
“To improve your conversations,” writes Foulkes, “don’t dismiss small talk altogether. It’s long been recognised as a universal way to set the scene and establish rapport.”
Mehl says he sees small talk as “an inactive ingredient in a medicine.” “The inactive ingredient,” he explains, “is necessary to hold the pill together. Small talk does exactly that … you need to use small talk in order to get hopefully to the more substantive conversations.”
Foulkes says that for those of us who want those more substantive interactions, there’s a need to step away from our topics of interest and into a consideration of our conversation partner’s interests. She cites a TED talk by journalist and author Celeste Headlee, who
recommends using open-ended questions in the style of a journalist, starting with who, what, when, where, why or how. ‘Try asking [the other person] things like “What was that like?” “How did that feel?”,’ she tells me. ‘Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.’
I took the time to listen — and I mean really listen, without my usual distractions — to Headlee’s talk, and I’m really glad I did. I think if I could truly learn the lessons on offer here, I’d not only be a better podcast host, but a better husband, father, and friend:
If you want to have better conversations, you have to learn to become a good listener.
It would be nice if, innately, this were something all recognized. But I’m not sure it’s as obvious as it seems. For me, this realization has come as the fruit of many long hours of conversation with Eddie, one of my best friends of over 20 years. When I get together with Eddie, I find that we explore really interesting and varied topics — and not just on the surface. We probe into the corners and unexplored back alleys of things. It occurred to me about a year ago that Eddie has a natural gift for interviewing. He always asks insightful and interesting questions. He’s sincerely interested in getting the opinions and perspective of whoever he’s asking. And he’s probative, but not in a pushy way. He’s absolutely great at asking important follow-up questions.
Our conversations are drastically improved because Eddie’s questions are really interesting. They get me thinking about things in ways I often wouldn’t consider on my own. And because his questions make me feel like my opinion is truly valued, I walk away from those encounters feeling positive and appreciated.
That’s a feeling I bet we’d all like to provide to others, and that makes it a skill worth developing.
Foulkes says that we also have to be vulnerable if we want to go deep:
There’s a critical moment of transition in the development of all relationships – whether it’s the shift from acquaintance to love interest, from colleague to confidante, from neighbour to friend. It’s the moment when you decide to share something more personal about yourself. Psychologists call this self-disclosure, and it’s a key step in developing intimacy. The communication experts Amanda Carpenter and Kathryn Greene at Rutgers University in New Jersey liken the act of self-disclosure to the peeling of an onion. Each time an individual shares something important about themselves, a layer is peeled back, exposing something deeper and more important, until eventually they reach the core. ‘It takes time to reach another’s “core self”, the most intimate details about another person,’ they wrote in 2016. ‘The core personality includes the most private information about a person.’
Now, as a professional over-sharer, I’d advocate some restraint and balance on this point, as I mentioned above. Leviton said, “Anyone who loved me wanted to see a side that I didn’t show others, but I hadn’t saved one for them … My indiscriminate, automatic honesty had meant that I’d tell a personal story the same way to a stranger as I would to my closest friend; that cheapened anything I shared.”
I’ve lived that. I’ve put people I love through it. I don’t want to do that anymore.
“The heart of good conversation,” concludes Foulkes, “is reciprocity. The magic is more likely to happen when you and the other party abide by a simple rule: I will give you the space to speak, and I will properly listen to what you have to say.”
Dealing With Disagreement
OK, so the above is all well and good with people we actually like, or at least want to get along with.
But what about everyone else? What about dealing with the unwashed masses, the ignorant opinions on social media, the politically tone deaf neighbor or uncle? What about them?
First, I’d start by returning to the quote from Marcus Aurelius I cited here:
Whenever a person’s lack of shame offends you, you should immediately ask yourself, “So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?” It isn’t, and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible. He’s just one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world. You should keep the same thought readily available for when you’re faced with devious and untrustworthy people, and people who are flawed in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible for such people not to exist, you’ll be kinder to each and every one of them. It’s also helpful immediately to consider what virtue nature has granted us human beings to deal with any given offense — gentleness, for instance, to counter discourteous people…
Then, I’d take a pinch (but perhaps no more than that) of the advice from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzik and Becky Frankiewicz, writing at Fast Company:
We like people who share our values because they provide external validation for how we define ourselves … Yet hanging out with like-minded people is the opposite of open-mindedness. It signals a reluctance to learn and grow, and a false sense of security about your own values, perhaps because you are afraid to have them challenged as they are the core definition of yourself, or you fear that they are too fragile to hold when exposed to a different form of thinking.
On first glance, I got a bracing whiff of “this way lies moral relativism and critical theory” when I read this. But I think there’s still a nugget of something valuable here. First of all, as someone who spends most of his time working within an ideological niche that heavily self-polices any outside-the-box thinking, I do think many people are afraid their views can’t withstand opposition or scrutiny, at least on a subconscious level. As a Catholic who has stepped out of bounds and started questioning certain unquestionable aspects of my faith, I immediately began receiving the sort of “you’re not even allowed to THINK that!!” responses that demonstrate an absolute terror of even considering the possibility we’ve gotten something wrong.
Things built to last can stand up to confrontation, questioning, and scrutiny though. If your values are solid, they’ll survive what others throw at them.
If you step back and think about the conversation as an opportunity to learn versus the need to defend, it helps open the aperture into a dialogue vs a debate. Somewhere along life’s path (we usually refer to this as getting older) learning is replaced with knowledge, yet if we make the choice to continuously learn from other’s perspectives, learning can be lifelong, and knowledge can grow vs. sustain. Consider that openness to experience—the degree to which you are interested in exploring new ideas, nurturing your hungry mind, and replacing routine with unconventional and unfamiliar adventures—decreases as we get older. The more we know, the less interested we are in learning something new.
I’m not a regular listener of the Joe Rogan Experience, but I am a big admirer of his approach to the show, which has made him the biggest podcaster in the world. He routinely combines a lot of the positive conversational traits we’ve been discussing here in a show that can feature pretty much any guest from any walk of life with any viewpoint — many of them rather far out — and the whole thing winds up being a fascinating conversation. I’m most impressed with Rogan’s authentic curiosity — he asks those good questions we were talking about earlier, and his interest in the answers is obvious — but only slightly less so with his willingness to hear opinions that are different than his own. The end result is a show that educates its audience about a wide and disparate array of topics in a way that is honest and compelling. Rogan’s ability to ask good, open ended questions of his far-ranging guests and engage in more dialogue than debate lies, I believe, at the heart of his success.
My day job is very different. I live and work in a world where arguments from authority and the genetic fallacy are both deployed with wild abandon. It becomes more and more of a struggle all the time for me to relate to these kinds of people; I find it refreshing that I can often read something from someone I know I disagree with, or in a publication I might actually consider hostile to my views in general, and still find something of value there. I don’t take pride in dismissing a thing just because I don’t like the person saying it. Truth has a funny way of showing up almost everywhere, even if the quantities vary. But finding it in an unexpected place, viewed through a philosophical lens different than your own, can actually help you to see it from a new, and sometimes genuinely helpful perspective. And that, I think, is what we can beneficially take away from this piece:
The path to accepting differences in values begins with the mindset of learning, a recognition that listening does not equal agreement, the curiosity and patience to listen to a different point of view. Finally, it requires the discipline to stay in the dialogue even when what’s being said doesn’t reflect your personal values. Stay in the dialogue because it doesn’t reflect your personal values. You’ll discover there is rich learning about your differences and likely more similarities than you initially realized existed.
And as we have likely all experienced, similarities — otherwise known as common ground — are just about the only effective means of building bridges with folks we’d just as likely wind up in a screaming match with otherwise. Finding those similarities is critical if we’re actually going to try to have a conversation.
You Come At The King, You’d Best Not Miss
At the end of the day, you might not always be able to avoid a conversation turning into an argument. So if push comes to shove, you’re going to want to know how to argue effectively.
In one of the most interesting articles I’ve read this year, Aaron Renn of The Masculinist talks about the logic of persuasion, in a piece aptly titled, “If You’re Debating Substance, You’ve Already Lost.”
I’m not gonna lie - that title really annoyed me at first. I’m a guy who likes to believe substance can win the day. I’ve been known take a lot of time, even for low-key Twitter exchanges, to research key facts from credible sources to throw in front of my sparring partner like caltrops.
Long experience tells me that you can only rarely beat people into submission with facts and logic. The time invested in gathering and presenting them is unlikely to yield a proportionate return.
“If you are trying to convince a skeptic or win a debate,” Renn writes, “including debates over what policies and views will prevail in a church or other institution, by using factual, logical, rational arguments, you are very likely to lose and in fact, have probably lost already and just don’t know it yet.”
“This is very important to understand,” he continues, “because so many people, especially conservatives, default to a logical model of argumentation to the exclusion of all other forms of persuasion or influence.”
But there’s a problem with all of that, and it’s one you’ve likely noticed, even if you weren’t fully aware of it.
“Arguments that flatter the sensibilities of powerful people and institutions,” Renn warns, “or tell the audience what it wants to hear, are very likely to prevail even if they are weak. Conversely, true but unpopular ideas often flounder.”
He then breaks down the three components of Aristotle’s model of persuasion — logos, pathos, and ethos — to help make sense of what’s going on:
Logos is rational argument based on facts and logic. When I speak of debating substance, this is what I’m talking about.
Pathos is an appeal to emotion or sentiment.
Ethos is an appeal to character, position, status, or “brand.”
In our modern, mass media saturated society, most winning arguments are only nominally based on logic. Instead, emotional based appeals are much more key. But above all the position or status of the person making the arguments trumps all. It determines to a great extent, for example, which arguments or emotional appeals are considered valid. The battle for social or cultural status ends up being definitive today in all too many cases.
Renn examines some arguments for these components. At times, his exposition gets a little too inside-baseball within the American Protestant/Evangelical community, of which he is a part, to hold the interest of outsiders. But even there, he effectively points out how often words like “feel” show up in certain persuasive arguments, even when there’s no logic backing up those feelings at all. This would be an example of Pathos.
Ethos is just as important, but more complex.
The simplest component is simply our character or reputation. We aren’t likely to believe someone who is known as a consummate liar, for example. The better our reputation for honesty, integrity, and fairness, the more likely we are to be believed.
Other attributes of a person can also affect his ability to persuade. Robert Cialdini, in his must-read book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, notes that social proof and likability are key factors in persuasion, and that similarity plays a key role in their effectiveness. We are more likely to be persuaded by someone we see as similar to ourselves.
Cialdini includes authority as one of his six key principles of persuasion. When a medical doctor in a white lab coat sits us down in his office, with his degrees and board certifications prominently displayed on the wall, we are more likely to believe what he says than we are to take health advice from some random person on the street.
Authority is only one piece of the Ethos puzzle. Cultural status plays a big role as well.
What is written in The New York Times has a powerful and profound effect on what truths (or “truths”) are accepted in our society. The Times and other elite institutions define cultural reality in the United States.
An interesting example of this (that Renn doesn’t mention) is “The Children of Pornhub” — a December 2020 opinion piece by Nicholas Kristof in the Times. The Op-Ed exposed that videos of child trafficking victims, rape, and other sexual exploitation were on display at the world’s most popular pornography website, Pornhub. It’s a tough read, and I can’t say I’d recommend it. What matters for our purposes, though, is less what the piece says than the effect the piece had.
Traveling in conservative/religious circles for over four decades as I have, there’s no question that there’s a lot of staunch, vocal opposition to pornography out there in society. Some of it is decidedly non-sectarian. But no matter how many well-thought-out articles have been written, no matter how much of a curiosity Reddit’s popular “nofap” community has become, no matter how many non-profits are founded to “fight the new drug,” nothing has made a dent in the massively profitable and horrifyingly popular pornography epidemic.
Nothing, that is, until Kristof’s piece in the New York Times.
“Under increasing public and corporate pressure,” reads a December 15, 2020 article in Deseret News, “Pornhub began purging millions of videos from its website this week.”
“The public scrutiny,” the article continues, “has led to major credit card companies — citing their own investigations into Pornhub — to ban the use of their cards to process transactions on the website.”
Pornhub is the 10th-most-viewed website in the world. It “attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo or Amazon. Pornhub rakes in money from almost three billion ad impressions a day.”
And yet a single well-placed opinion piece led to a significant change in behavior — an example of ethos.
In our mass media society, this cultural power often trumps everything else. Attempting to argue about substance in the absence of cultural power is overwhelmingly likely to fail. Those possessing cultural power have no need to even seriously and legitimately engage with the arguments of their opponents. Conversely, people without much cultural power often resort to logical argument because that’s all they have.
The key to having your ideas prevail today is the acquisition of cultural power. This is not a simple matter. Because this power resides in networks, even getting a job at The New York Times doesn’t necessarily do a lot by itself. Ross Douthat is a conservative Catholic columnist for the Times, but he doesn’t have much influence on society as a whole. He’s also highly restricted in what he can say if he wants to keep his position. That’s not to say there’s no benefit to Douthat in being an NYT columnist. It definitely means many more influential people will be reading him than they otherwise would, for example. But a few well-placed people here and there don’t counter entire networks.
Renn talks about a debate within the New Calvinist community over Social Justice issues. After a somewhat detailed breakdown, he zeroes-in on the persuasion upshot:
Try to ignore the substance of the social justice debate and your own feelings about it, and look only at the mechanisms of debate and power. The pro-social justice community is winning because they command the cultural heights within the evangelical world and within the culture at large. This allows them to win out over time without ever having to substantively engage with their opponents’ arguments and positions. As Hunter put it, cultural power is “the power to name things.” It allows the people who possess it to define who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are, something we see frequently deployed in our society.
We see the same thing across the ideological spectrum. The power to name things is what gives cultural bogeymen like specious accusations of racism their teeth. In a sense, if all these ideological factions are seen through a religious frame, what we are dealing with is the authority to identify and out heretics in our midst. That is what cultural power provides. The Catholic Church was able to do it when she was the dominant force in Western civilization; we’ve now ceded that ground to the radical Left and their new “morality.”
“Truth is not self-implementing,” asserts Renn. “Without cultural power and status, and that power’s ability to validate appeals to emotion, the truth very often loses out.”
Renn also looks at the loss of cultural power in institutions:
Another approach is to induce the people and institutions with high status to take actions that squander their own legitimacy. The latter has actually been occurring for some time now, even without much inducement. This is shown in the general decline of trust in institutions in our society. To the extent that institutions like the elite media and universities lose trust, they lose legitimacy. They can no longer create real consensus the way the old network news programs could back in the 1980s. They still have immense power, but increasingly they are forced to operate by using that power transparently rather than implicitly and invisibly, which undermines them in the long term. As sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote, “Viable civilizations, are, almost literally, clothed in [legitimized] authority; and when the emperor’s clothes are removed his only recourse is the exercise of naked power.” Naked displays of power destroy moral authority and undermine legitimacy.
Again, we see the same thing across the spectrum, both in Church and State. Institutions that have squandered their legitimacy, from the presidency to the papacy, are becoming increasingly autocratic in the face of lost trust. Renn sees this response as a corrective, but he doesn’t fully explain why. Perhaps he’s still trying to figure that out, just like I am. What happens when it all comes down? What replaces the old institutions that are overthrown; their authority ignored? Or as Renn asks, “What are the long-term consequences of the media abandoning traditional journalistic standards in order to get Trump? We don’t know yet, but they may be profound.”
We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but it was ground worth covering.
So let’s recap:
Honesty is important, but too much honesty, too imprudently deployed, can cause more problems than it solves. We don’t have to be liars to be polite; we don’t have to spin falsehoods to keep a little treasure in reserve. Learning the difference can help you better navigate the social interactions that make up our lives.
Emotional intelligence is all about how well we can understand and manage our emotions, along with our ability to be empathetic and understanding about the emotions of others. Recognizing that honesty is usually the best policy, we can curtail needlessly awkward conversations by following the three-question rule:
Does this need to be said?
Does this need to be said by me?
Does this need to be said by me, now?
We need meaningful conversations, but sometimes we have to do the necessary foundation work to get there. Small talk serves a purpose in establishing that foundation, and talking about the weather or the traffic or the state of your friend’s garden can comfortably occupy the initial moments of a visit to a friend while providing countless segues to deeper, more substantive discussions.
To get better at those more substantive discussions, we have to learn to be good listeners. We have to suppress the impulse to listen only to help us form a reply. We need to ask open ended questions — Who, What, Where, Why, When? — if we want to get rich, meaningful replies. And we need to understand that good conversations are the fruit of reciprocity: we both get to talk, and we’re both willing to listen.
When dealing with those whose views we disagree with, we need to set aside the impulse to argue. “The act of listening doesn’t indicate agreement.” If we go into conversations of this kind with the mindset that we’re there to learn what the other person thinks, rather than believing we have an obligation to defend our viewpoint, we’re much more likely to find common ground with them, and that can be the basis of a more fruitful discussion. At the very least, it humanizes us, making us look less like an easy target of ideological rage and more like a person with sincerely-held beliefs and respect for others.
And finally, when it comes time to drop the gloves and debate, we need to remember that facts and logic (logos) often lose out to emotional appeals (pathos) and appeals to status (ethos). We should absolutely root our arguments in facts, but we should make recourse to the full arsenal of persuasion. And if we’re up against those with more cultural cachet than we have, then we somehow need, as Renn says, to “acquire cultural status yourself, or somehow reduce the cultural status of your opponents.”
Easier said than done, but that’s a puzzle for a different day.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next time.