Recovering From An Addiction to Being Right

It’s been over a week since Austin and I, and Eric Black and Charlie Quimby, went up to Princeton to Chad and Michelle Everson’s farm (they had chickens and ducks) to muck around in clay and talk with several conservative bloggers.

I’ve been buried in editing a book and doing other work and in the raw emotional experience of having someone very dear to our family be in Hazelden for treatment.  I’ve found something powerfully in common between Princeton and Hazelden — it’s listening, and its opposite, pushing your position.  I’ve discovered (Good Lord, how long must it take?) that communication isn’t about advancing my position, however right I’m sure it is.

Eric Black was talking with Joey Monson of Wisconsin while both were sitting on hay bales up in Princeton. They were arguing about America’s standing abroad as the war in Iraq goes on and on. Eric was reciting facts and figures. Now, nobody is better at facts and figures than Eric Black, who used to write for the Strib and now blogs and writes for Minnesota Monitor. I’ve always loved reading Eric’s explanations of complicated things — the Palestinian question, the Kurds, what makes omelets poofy. He makes convoluted things clear. But this day he was really pushing his info, saying something critical of American policy and not changing any minds. I said, to try to shift us from arguing to thinking, “So you’re one of those people who blames America first. Everything’s our fault.” He looked at me as if I’d just slipped a few rungs down the evolutionary scale, and said, “Well, if you want to reduce this to absurdities and ignore the facts and arguments…” I was playing the role of a conservative who who didn’t want to hear his liberal rap because the conservative felt no connection over which to hear Eric. “What if you said,” I proposed to Eric, “Look, I love America, I feel very fortunate to live here, and that’s why I want America to be strong and stand for good things. And when we do something I think is wrong, I believe it’s patriotic to criticize ourselves so we change and keep closer to our values,” or something like that. Lay out something he might have in common with a conservative, rather than argue a barrage of facts. Find some common goal, and then say, “Well what if we tried to get to that goal this way…”

The biggest lesson I learned from the Princeton “Conversation by Fire” bloggers’ gathering was that only when we find some connection over things that we value in common might we actually listen to one another. Charlie asked us each to say where our positions come from, what in our backgrounds and experience makes us be liberal or conservative. It was a brilliant question. And the time in Princeton spent listening to and saying why we hold the views that we hold was rewarding and interesting. The time spent trying to push those views into somebody’s stubborn head was boring and dispiriting.

Back home, my wife and I disagreed on some step in our involvement with the recovery process for our dear one at Hazelden. Lisa said something as we talked late at night in bed, and I thought her view was wrong and would even be harmful. I could hardly wait for her tongue to stop before I was in there telling her she was wrong, and why, and what would probably happen if we followed her course. I didn’t change her mind. I just pissed her off. Made her feel not heard, made her feel I wasn’t with her in this difficult situation.

I discovered, later, that it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. Really, who the hell knows? This recovery process ain’t easy. Regardless of what I thought of her view, I needed to be there “at whatever address she’s at,” my therapist (one of them) told me. If we can stand together in that doorway, hear each other, discover what we value in common (the wellbeing of the person in recovery), then we can walk out of the doorway and say, “Now, which way do we go, left? “No, I think we go right.” We may disagree, but we’ll be together on the journey. I gotta listen first, draw her out, understand why she’s saying what she’s saying, try to get what she’s feeling. Hold onto my reactions until later. Tell her where I’m coming from and what I think only after I’ve really listened to her.

Charlie Quimby and Joey Monson — liberal and conservative –are doing a brave thing after meeting at Chad’s farm in Princeton. They’ve created a blog called American Crosscut, where they intend to advance differing views on an issue while — sit down for this — actually listening to one another. I mean, here’s what these fuzzy-headed idealistic liberal/conservatives are saying they hope to do on this blog, and hope others will do: “Listen to understand instead of to refute.”

Good God. That could save the world. Bless you. And hey, Ryan, we started something. Way to go. And a ways to go.

— Bruce Benidt

9 thoughts on “Recovering From An Addiction to Being Right

  1. The American Crosscut stuff is very interesting. The rarity of dialog of that quality is sad, but it’s better to start small than not start at all.

  2. GH says:

    I like Benidt’s phrase: “addiction to being right.”

    Makes me think: Most disagreements bring at least a small chance for persuasion.

    If I turn a disagreement into a grandstanding, name-calling, platitude and refutation contest, I concede the opportunity to persuade (and make things “boring and dispiriting,” as Benidt says).

    But if I take on the harder, less immediately gratifying and less cool work of listening and trying to understand the other guy for a start, I at least have a shot of changing a mind.

    At minimum, I have a better chance at making the sale if I don’t alienate the other guy right out of the chute.

    Imagine beginning a client pitch by saying, “You guys are misguided idiots and, if it were up to you, you’d ruin everything. Now then, would you like to see my capabilities presentation?” But that’s how so much political discourse shapes up.

    Do I really want to persuade? If I do, I guess I should debate like it.

    Or do I mostly want to revel in my rightness at the expense of your wrongness? If that’s the case, it doesn’t matter. I can just say anything that feels gratifying, because its not really accomplishing anything beyond that.

    This little experiment you guys have done has encouraged me to think on that some more. Thanks.

  3. jloveland says:

    There are at least two core problems that make two-way, open-minded communications increasingly difficult:

    THE PERSUASION INDUSTRY. There are lot of people in the world who are hired to persuade, not to communicate. Liberal and conservative talk radio jocks and pundits, PR/marketing pros, religious leaders, special interest officials, political consultants/employees, etc. Many people in many roles are not interested in a two-way search for the truth, because that is not in their job description. So they use the tools of persuasion — straw man arguments, selective use of facts, hyperbole, discrediting the messenger to discredit the message, etc. — rather than listening and other tools of communications. And these paid persuaders tend to be the people who have the loudest voices in society.

    ABSOLUTIST INSTINCTS. Another core problem is that a lot of people are moral absolutists who believe deep down inside that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are either “right or wrong.” If you know there is one truth and that you have already figured it out, a search for the truth through an open-minded conversation is of little interest.

  4. Bruce,

    Thanks for writing this article. It reminds me to continue to ‘seek first to understand’ when talking with Charlie in our “American Crosscut” experiment.

    I have to say that this project isn’t easy. Charlie and I are not only worlds apart in our views of public policy; we’re also worlds apart generationally, geographically, and are at completely different stages in our lives and careers. I have to force myself into his shoes and attempt to respond in a way that he can relate to, while at the same time using language that explains my thoughts and beliefs without ‘watering it down’. It’s pretty exhausting.

    As Charlie and I continue our discussions, I’m finding myself more and more curious as to why progressives think and reason as they do. Before, I would simply write them off as ‘wrong’, and even (dare I say it?) evil. Well, I don’t believe that, anymore. If only it were that simple.

    Regarding the pitfalls: Although I agree with the above commenter on the idea of the ‘Persuasion Industry’ influencing productive dialogue, I would also say that this is why experiments like “American Crosscut” are so important. Charlie and I aren’t making any money from engaging in civil discourse. We are just two concerned American citizens who want what’s best for our country and its citizens. We just disagree on how to get there.

    I have to say the most difficult thing thus far (I think you’ll find this interesting, Bruce) has been not being concerned with what my conservative colleagues will think about me having rational discussions with a liberal. This is uncharted territory for me, because I’ve never really given a rat’s behind about what anyone thinks of me, or my beliefs. Strangely, I find myself wondering if I’m going to get my head bit off by some conservative pundit on a high-ranking blog, somewhere. (I can’t speak for Charlie, but I wonder if he struggles with this, as well?)

    However, those thoughts soon disappear when I remember that concerning myself with such things is what’s wrong with America in the first place. It’s a struggle, though, I have to admit.

    Again, great post, Bruce.

    Cheers!

    Joey

  5. Observer says:

    Veteran Star Tribune editorial writer Dave Hage announced Tuesday that he is leaving the newspaper to become communications director for first-term Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

    Let’s see how many Strib staffers have left to work for the GOP? ……………………. ZERO.

    Wonder why.

  6. Cindy says:

    As a quiet observer of this whole event (I was one of the invited who did attend) explicitely named the Blogosphere Divide, and sponsored by our dear frinds Chad and Michelle Everson at their hobby farm in Princeton, Minnestoa.

    I appreciate this post, and all of the coments about coming together. Don’t forget who started this though, our dear Chad at the grizzleygroundswell. If it were not for him, his ideas and heartfelt thoughts about coming together, you all would not be at this point of communication.

    I give credit to all who attended…we had a great time together. It proved for me the reason for many of my of my views, but also provided a canvas to work towards resolution.

    I meant what I said there at the Blogosphere, Boomers are spoiled! Not everyone can have what you had, and what you had was special… that was post WWII! Let America get with the program, and maybe then we can succeed as a unified country!

    Countrychick from KTLK…

  7. Hi Bruce, I’m glad to see that you finally weighed in on this! I’ve been waiting to hear your thoughts on our get together, and as usual, I wasn’t disappointed.

    I think you’re very right. This is a matter of finding common values. We can have different opinions on those values,. but this polarizing right/left, up/down, black/white attitude accomplishes almost nothing other than fostering anger and further erecting barriers to any real progress.

    While I do find the American Crosscut experiment to be interesting, I can’t rightly say that I agree with the approach. I think that you and I are on a slightly different page when it comes to coming together to find common ground than Joey and Charlie. Not that it’s a bad thing though, just different approaches to the same topic… Which is the point after all 🙂

    -Ryan

  8. Lisa DJ says:

    I’m a few days behind. After at least two of my friends said recently, “Do you read the rowdy crowd blog? Because I read about you on it,” I’ve now seen Bruce’s post about the Wisconsin gathering & about listening.

    Who besides me is reminded of Deborah Tannen’s book of probably 15 years ago about gender differences in communication? “You Just Don’t Understand” is the title. Men communicate (broad generalization) in kind of a one-up-man-ship-way, to win or dominate or at least maintain their status. Women generally take turns naturally, talk about their personal experience (vs. the truth) and tend to stay connected by keeping track of–and talking about–the small details of their loved ones’ lives.

    Phil Donahue, one of my 1970s heroes who had one of the first talk shows discussing the issues of the day and giving audience members the microphone, said the same thing: A man will stand up and tell you the way it is, will say, here’s the truth. A woman will stand up and say, in my experience……

    So whose form of communication are we talking about here? Sounds like the guys’.

  9. Bill Dewey says:

    There’s a scene from a novel called, I think, “The Ladies’ Room,” of about the same vintage as Tannen’s book, set in the late 1950’s – early 60’s. Couples are leaving a neighborhood party, and the men all say what a “good” party it was — they’d executed some kind of process; the women all say how “lovely” it was, they’d had a pleasant experience. Having been at many such, it couldn’t be more true to life.

    Men tend to think sequentially, causally; women tend to think holistically, instantaneously; something to do with the Y-chromosome and the brain. Often frustrating but it makes life interesting!

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