Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement

This framework frees you from the trap of unproductive conflict and pointless arguing forever.

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kk: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.
kk: Today, we’re discussing Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement by Buster Benson.
In this title, Benson destigmatizes disagreement and the idea that all arguments are bad. He shows that learning productive debate can help you strengthen personal relationships, perform better professionally, and broaden perspectives on the world.
kk: vp Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.
kk: Vincent, how does the author view arguments in daily life?
vp: Benson has seen firsthand how unproductive disagreement can derail projects. He has also seen how productive conflict can boost performance, which is why he now specializes in teaching some of the world’s leading firms how to argue constructively. He claims that arguments are only bad when they’re unproductive. This title helps people learn to argue well and realize that arguments are a meaningful part of life.
kk: The author claims that arguments open up crucial communication pathways and are a part of every successful relationship. Why does he claim this?
vp: Although arguing may seem negative, you'll see conflict resolution positively if you learn to disagree productively. He claims that you’ll be less irritated by disagreements and meet them less often by accepting this view. Your world will expand as you learn to welcome and appreciate the different perspectives of others. First, it’s essential to understand what causes arguments.
kk: Is there a leading cause of most arguments?
vp: One common cause is anxieties. Do you remember that Tweet that went viral of the person who cut their bagel vertically like a loaf of bread, rather than horizontally?
kk: Oh my goodness, yes! People lost their minds over it. Those comments were heated.
vp: Exactly. Even though this disagreement about bagel slicing was low-stakes, it provoked such a heated response. The author says this is because it created anxiety which led to the dispute. Anxiety arises when a perspective that’s valuable to us is brought into conflict with a different viewpoint. This can be a barrier to productive disagreement.
kk: How does this limit productive disagreement?
vp: Well, anxiety is an unpleasant emotion. When we experience something anxiety-inducing, our impulse is to dismiss or attack it.
kk: Hence the angry Twitter responses.
vp: When we refuse to thoughtfully engage with things that trigger our anxiety, we shut down the possibility of dialogue, understanding, and growth.
kk: So, in short, we deny ourselves the opportunity for productive disagreement. How can we identify our anxieties and the other person's anxieties?
vp: You and your opponent might be bringing completely different anxieties to the same argument. Benson divides anxieties into three categories: anxieties of the head, the heart, and the hand. Anxieties of the head have to do with information and rational thought. Anxieties of the heart are concerned with emotion. Anxieties of the hand center around what’s useful or practical.
kk: Why does identifying the type of anxiety matter?
vp: The author gives an example that explains this. Imagine the parents of a twelve-year-old. They’ve planned a night out, but their babysitter cancels at the last minute. They can’t agree whether they should leave their child at home or not. One partner says they don’t feel safe leaving their child unsupervised at home. This partner is bringing anxieties of the heart to the discussion. The other partner tries to close the argument by saying that it’s perfectly legal to leave a twelve-year-old child home alone. But this tactic appeals to anxieties of the head. It can’t resolve an argument triggered by anxieties of the heart.
To disagree productively, we need to be aware of our anxieties and triggers and exercise empathy to understand the other person's source of anxiety.
kk: That makes sense. What if the other person's belief is so far from yours that you can't understand where they are coming from?
vp: You know when topics in the news feel so polarized that there is no foreseeable middle ground?
kk: Yes, like climate change, gun control, or vaccinations?
vp: Yes, those are perfect examples. Benson explains that the reason there is no middle ground is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when you encounter a belief that contradicts your own perspective. The further the conflicting view is from your own, the greater the cognitive dissonance and the anxiety you’re likely to feel as a result. That’s when the voices in your head get to work to soothe this anxiety.
kk: What are the voices in your head?
vp: Benson identifies four types of voices that kick in during conflict. He presents these using an example with vaccines. Say you firmly believe that mandatory vaccinations are a necessary public health measure. What happens when you encounter someone who’s equally sure that parents shouldn’t be forced to vaccinate their children? Because your views are opposed, you’ll likely experience cognitive dissonance, which produces anxiety.
You may speak to yourself in the voice of power. This voice wants to win the argument by shutting it down. In the vaccination debate, the voice of power says, “Anti-vaxxers are completely wrong. End of story!”
kk: So that voice refuses to accept alternative viewpoints. What about a less aggressive voice?
vp: Alternatively, there is the voice of reason which tries to win through evidence and reason. In the vaccination debate, the voice of reason thinks, “Show me the evidence that vaccines are harmful. I bet you can’t!”
Then there's the voice of avoidance, which wants to steer clear of the discussion entirely. This voice thinks, “Whatever. I’m staying out of this!”
kk: But the problem with all of these voices is they shut down disagreement. No progress can be made with these voices.
vp: You're exactly right. That's why there is the voice of possibility. This voice sees disagreement as the beginning of dialogue, and it seeks out new perspectives. It might ask, “Why do you feel that way?”
The author notes that this doesn't mean you need to accept your opponent’s argument or change your viewpoint. It has the potential to make space for dialogue and understanding.
kk: So, get to know the voices in your head. And when you hear the voice of possibility – listen to it! We often hear about biases and how they influence perspective. Do these play a role in productive disagreement?
vp: Yes, I'm glad you mentioned that. Biases impact our decisions, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Biases can help us conserve our decision-making energy and deal with overwhelming amounts of information. For example, think of choosing an ice cream flavor.
kk: So instead of being paralyzed between pistachio, chocolate, or one of the many other flavors, you end up with chocolate since you already like it.
vp: Precisely, it makes that decision easy. Biases can have negative consequences, too. Benson discusses two ways our biases can hurt our efforts to disagree productively.
Do you remember what the availability heuristic is from psychology?
kk: Yes, when faced with a decision, we only consider the options we can immediately call to mind- or what's available to us.
vp: Exactly. The problem is, we all have different availability heuristics. A solution or strategy that seems easy to you might seem complicated or downright dangerous to someone else – and vice versa. When two or more availability heuristics clash, disagreements often arise.
The other bias Benson mentions is in-group favoritism. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to people we consider to be part of “our group,” whether that’s someone who attended the same college as us or someone who votes the same way we do.
kk: That sounds like it can be toxic in a disagreement.
vp: Definitely. How this plays out is we’ll consider the arguments of people in our group but dismiss the perspectives of people outside of it. This is a recipe for an unproductive disagreement, and it narrows your worldview, too. Basically, both of these are mental shortcuts that have evolved to save us time and mental energy. In the proper context, they can help us. But sometimes, they fill in our mental gaps in lazy, ill-considered ways rather than forcing us to consider alternative perspectives and arguments.
kk: That explains why it’s hard to engage in open-minded and productive disagreements when we're stuck in one perspective.
vp: It gets tricky because we can't just turn off our cognitive biases when we want to. To participate in productive disagreements, you need to honestly acknowledge your own biases. More than this, you need to admit that, unchecked, your preferences can prevent you from seriously engaging with other viewpoints. Make sure your biases aren’t getting the better of you. To do this, try to understand the thought processes that lead others to arrive at their arguments, and check yourself when you dismiss voices from a group that’s not your own.
kk: How do you try to understand the thought processes that may lead others to arrive at their arguments without sounding condescending?
vp: I had that question too. Benson says that speculating about our opponent’s perspective is a weakness. When trying to understand our opponent’s arguments, we have an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify or even demonize their point of view. So we want to own our perspective but avoid speculating about others.
kk: Can you give an example of how this plays out?
vp: The author gives an example of Bob and Sofia during their city election. Sofia is an advocate of exercising your right to vote. When she found out Bob chose not to vote in the latest election, she was upset. She understood why she had voted: she believed passionately in one candidate and strongly opposed the other candidates. She thought she understood just as well why Bob hadn’t voted: because he was selfish, apathetic, and unwilling to do his democratic duty.
kk: But did she think of him like that before? Or just after this instance?
vp: No, and after time the voice of possibility popped up in Sofia’s thoughts. She had always respected Bob’s intelligence and never saw him as selfish. She wondered if there was some motivation behind his actions that she had missed. She reached out to Bob, and he explained. Unlike Sofia, Bob didn’t feel that any of the candidates were fit for office. He couldn’t vote for one in good conscience when he genuinely didn’t believe they would do a good job. So, he decided to exercise his right to abstain from voting. In fact, he considered his non-vote a protest.
Sofia doesn’t necessarily agree with Bob’s decision. But, by listening to the voice of possibility and reaching out, she now knows his motivations and reasoning were a lot more complex than she initially gave him credit for.
kk: Then the lesson here is to speak for yourself but more than that, invite others to do the same. You don't need to agree to understand where they are coming from and why they think the way they do.
vp: Exactly. While you are navigating through an argument, think of questions as pathways through disagreements. In having productive debates, you need questions as much as statements. Questions can open up perspectives, reveal anxieties, and incite empathy. Yet, in our disagreements, many of us use questions poorly. We ask closed questions calibrated to shut the discussion down. Or we ask questions designed to confirm our own perspective instead of probing that of the other person.
kk: Then what kind of questions should we use to be productive?
vp: Think of the game twenty questions. In this game, your partner thinks of a person, animal, or object. Your goal is to work out what they’re thinking of using twenty questions or fewer. Twenty Questions forces its participants to ask open-ended, imaginative, unexpected questions. What’s more, it discourages its participants from asking questions with a specific answer in mind. Sometimes this kind of disagreement can even foster closeness and connection between friends or family.
kk: Nothing like some friendly debate.
vp: True. For all arguments, another thing to remember is the environment. Neutral environments facilitate better disagreements. Think about the last argument you had. Instead of what it was about, think of where it took place. Was it inside or outside? In public or in private? Online or offline? Did you feel safe expressing yourself? Do you think others felt safe expressing themselves?
The spaces where our disagreements occur can seriously influence their outcomes. Imagine a discussion that takes place in a classroom. It’s face to face. There are set classroom rules that all discussion participants abide by, and there’s a teacher present to moderate debate. Now consider that same discussion on social media. It’s more democratic – no one person has more authority than anyone else. It’s also more unstructured – there’s no set of rules that govern behavior. Context can critically influence the way we argue.
kk: Interesting factor to consider. What is an ideal place for productive discussion?
vp: According to the author, the best context for an argument is a neutral space. This may be a physical space or a mental one. Different ideas and perspectives should be welcomed. In a neutral discussion space, everyone should feel comfortable sharing their opinions and giving feedback on those of others. There should also be an open discussion culture that allows participants to acknowledge their opinions' anxieties, and biases.
kk: I feel like the environment especially matters when you discuss or argue with your child. I know that I would be so embarrassed if my mom or dad and I had an argument in public. That would probably make me less willing to see the other perspective because I'd be focused on who can hear us.
vp: Me too. You can have unproductive disagreements anywhere, but a neutral discussion space is far more conducive to productive conflict. If you value constructive dispute, it’s up to you to create neutral areas where they can best occur.
kk: It sounds like the key takeaway from this title is when it comes to arguments, we see them as negative and want to avoid them. The truth is, productive disagreements are essential to healthy communication. We need to rethink the way we approach disagreements. We must see them as a way to make connections, grow, and understand the end goals for our arguments. Whether it's with your children, spouse, or coworkers, when we disagree productively, we’re all winners!

Have you ever walked away from an argument and suddenly thought of all the brilliant things you wish you’d said? Do you avoid certain family members and colleagues because of bitter, festering tension that you can’t figure out how to address? Now, finally, there’s a solution: a new framework that frees you from the trap of unproductive conflict and pointless arguing forever.

In Why Are We Yelling, Benson destigmatizes disagreement and the idea that all arguments are bad. He shows that learning productive debate can help you strengthen personal relationships, perform better professionally, and broaden perspectives on the world.

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