Braver Angels does fantastic work helping people improve conversations with those they have significant and stress-inducing disagreements with so that they can gain greater mutual understanding of each other, thereby reducing polarization. It seems to work. As I noted earlier, though, the desire to maintain or improve one’s relationships with others is only one of the two main reasons we engage in discourse. The other is to exchange information, both “teaching” and “learning.” As I noted in that previous post, I worry about the “truth deficit” likely to emerge if we stress mutual understanding (of each other rather than of each other’s views). Here, I’ll discuss this a bit further.
What is encouraged in Braver Angels’ workshops is active listening, where one attends to what the other says, providing non-verbal clues of interest, along with reflecting back to the other what they said. In a therapeutic setting, reflecting back to another what they said can be incredibly useful. “People like having their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them” (Tania Israel, page 51) and so increases their comfort level when in therapy, thereby allowing them to open up. For therapeutic purposes, it seems really quite useful. Nonetheless, I have long been uncomfortable with it in other settings.
I had a date once with a woman who, throughout dinner, reflected back to me what I had said. It so threw me off that I didn’t really know what to make of it. I don’t recall how long it took for me to realize that she might have resorted to the tactic because she found what I was saying antithetical to her own views (I don’t recall what we were discussing). I’ll never know for sure as I found it so distasteful that I never saw her again. If the same thing would’ve happened today, I’d probably ask why she was doing it, but I suspect there are others who would do as I did and walk away. (I don’t deny, of course, that others appreciate it.)
Again, the technique has value—there is good evidence that it helps people feel comfortable which can be useful both in developing relationships and in therapy situations (see Israel footnotes 5 and 6 on page 74). Importantly, though, the world is not a therapy session and sometimes what matters is exchanging information, not (or not merely) developing a relationship. Put another way, while it’s true that we sometimes want to develop a relationship and learn about the person, other times we want to figure out the truth about a topic and are less willing to except the truth deficit. If we are trying to persuade someone to change their views about abortion, capitalism, gun control, immigration, schools, welfare rights, or any number of other contentious topics, we might want to know more about our interlocutor, but we also just want to persuade—or be persuaded. (Part of why we want to know who they are is to determine how we might persuade them!)
To be clear, when we are engaging in a serious discussion with someone about an issue we disagree about, we should be open to the possibility that the view we start the conversation with is mistaken and that we can thus learn from our interlocutor. Of course, when we start, we will believe we are right and hope to teach (persuade) the other, but we have to know we can be wrong. We should also be open to the possibility that neither of us is right and there is some third position (perhaps somewhere between our view and theirs, perhaps not) that is better still. What is important in these cases, though, is figuring out the truth about the issue (or getting closer to it). We shouldn’t give that up lightly.
Getting to the truth may, in some instances, be aided by reflecting to each other what we’ve said. Obviously, if we do not understand what our interlocutor has said we should ask them to explain. Sometimes we simply need some clarification. We need to know, after all, that we are actually talking about the same thing and we need to understand where our views overlap and where they do not. Sometimes, also, we might ask someone to repeat what they say in different words to make sure we understand; we might also do it for them (common in teaching). But if reflecting back to each other is used for other reasons (making the other feel comfortable, for example), I wonder how far it goes. It seems to me that we need to challenge each other. Sometimes, we may even need to be abrasive—or to have others be abrasive toward us. This can help us improve our own views. (For more on that see Emily Chamlee-Wright’s article on the topic here, as well as my response. See also Hrishikesh Joshi’s Why Its OK to Speak Your Mind.)
In short, it seems to me that in normal discourse with someone with whom we disagree, we ought to be at least as concerned with determining the best view as we are with making each other comfortable. Making each other comfortable is important, but perhaps primarily as a precursor to honest conversation. If I say, for example, that “I believe we should have completely open economic borders, perhaps just keeping out known criminals” and you reply “let me be sure I understand; you think we should not stop anyone from coming into the country (perhaps unless they are criminals in their own country) even if it means they take our jobs, push for an end to Judeo-Christianity, and bring in drugs,” I am likely to skip over the first part—which strikes me as unnecessary and vaguely insulting—and move on to the latter claims, which I think are all mistakes. I might think “OK, so they wanted to be clear” or “OK, they wanted time to gather their thoughts,” but if it becomes a regular part of the conversation, I am less likely to continue engaging (and, frankly, less likely to trust the other). I may even wonder why why people approach all of life as if it’s a therapy session.