Somebody says something outlandish. You push back. The whole conversation breaks down.
That. Cycle. Sucks.
Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, says one of the best tricks to use when our backs go up because we’ve been faced with a difficult statement is to:
A. Summarize their argument
B. Ask if you got it right
C. Invite them to explore the nuances
One caveat before we get deeper into the jujitsu – this also assumes you want to engage with this person. Disengagement is always an option. However, if there’s an incentive to interact (i.e. with a client, colleague, child/terrorist, etc.), this will allow you to disarm the conflict with curiosity.
Let’s use an absurd example. Let’s say someone says, “I don’t want the COVID vaccine because I don’t take drugs with the word ‘Ovid’ in them.” Let’s also assume this confuses you. Here’s how Ripley would have us respond.
“It sounds like you don’t want the vaccine because of its name. Do I have that right?” We want to let them answer here in case they have to clarify. Then we continue with acknowledging the complexity, “so, what other drugs have ‘Ovid’ in their name that you’ve avoided? How’s this work exactly?”
The point isn’t to shame them or win the intellectual argument, but to keep the conversation going. If nobody’s talking, nobody’s conversating, and then what’s the point? Getting curious when others get condescending, crummy, or curmudgeonly can help keep the conversation on track.
The exploration of complexity at the end also forces a black and white thinker into the grey zone of nuance, or an ambiguous no-opinion person into the reality of the boundaries of their argument. This alone can be really useful. It helps us by leveraging our curiosity to explore their thoughts together.
It won’t always work. Some people just aren’t going to have anything to do with sanity. But, if you lead with your own curiosity, there’s a chance they’ll match you and be willing to explore their own logic. When that’s the case, progress can still be made, even if someone might have a slightly wacky idea in their heads.