I teach rhetoric and critical thinking – how to spin and unspin arguments, and above all, how to do it evenhandedly – to critique our own opinions as carefully as we do our opposition’s, and to puff up their arguments as readily as we puff up ours.
Evenhandedness doesn’t come naturally. We tend to spin arguments we like and apply critical thinking to arguments we oppose. We’re much more likely to say, “I’m right; you’re wrong and here’s why,” than we are to say “You’re right; I’m wrong and here’s why,” and not just because our arguments are better than theirs. We all just tend to fluff up what our gut tells us and pick apart what their gut tells them differently.
If everyone is spinning up their arguments and unspinning other people’s arguments, then maybe it’s not safe to spin and unspin evenhandedly. You don’t want to be out there saying, “Hey, maybe you’re right,” to a bunch of people who assume they are.
But actually it’s all in how you do it, and if you do it right, you win friends, influence and wisdom.
Friends: People like us best when we hear and understand them, and we like them better too when we understand them.
Influence: People find us more credible when we hear and understand them, and we also learn what is likely to sway them.
Wisdom: More than we notice, confidence in our own opinions is borne of ignoring counter-arguments. Wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments, for example, the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for serenity or courage. Wisdom is facing tradeoffs and it doesn’t make us any less confident or firm in our convictions. You can still think “this situation definitely calls for courage, not serenity,” even when you know that it might call for serenity. Wisdom doesn’t prevent placing firm bets. It just prevents forgetting that they are bets.
I’ve developed some games that give students solid practice in evenhandedness. They can be played in any setting – business retreats, family dinners, first dates, classrooms, even solitaire, and at any age. They limber up our grip on conviction and self-certainty.
There are other ways to make friends, but they’re not as wise. You can make friends only with those who agree with you about everything, or are so backed-off by your bluster that they wouldn’t dare let on that they disagree. Surrounding yourself with yes-men is not likely to give one much influence either.
Wisdom emerges from arguments among friends, people who can hear each other and in the process gain balanced insight into the pros and cons of everything.
And paradoxically so does true conviction. We know where to stand firm when we understand the counter-stance.