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Nick Ang

Focus on understanding, not on what is right

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar to you: someone gives their opinion and you feel an urge to find and point out the flaws in what they are saying. You then also feel the urge to correct them and most of the time, you do. Eventually, when it is someone’s turn to contend with your opinion, they appear to have the same urge as you: find flaws, point them out, help you see it the ‘right’ way. All the time, the ‘right’ way is either your way or theirs.

And the cycle repeats, with comments flying back and forth, usually spiralling downwards until it damages your relationship with that person.

For me, as a person who recently started to take his writing more seriously, this intellectual sumo wrestling has become too familiar. I regularly behave this way and I don’t like it because it feels like I’m approaching discussions wrongly.

I write because I want to understand the world better and to be understood, but not to be right. So it feels incongruent that I seem to treat every differing opinion as an argument against mine and I try hard to formulate a counterargument to every person’s comment, only to take a deep breath and expect another round of tumbling in the dirt.

I feel like I cannot help it. It also feels like discussions are supposed to unfold this way.

Recently, however, I found something in an unlikely place that provided me with a glimmer of hope that there could be a better way to approach discussions.

In Matthew McConaughey’s memoir, Greenlights, he recounted an incident in Mali where he was travelling at the time. He sat with two locals debating about a young local woman who had just walked into the bar they were in, obviously looking for a man to pay to take her home. One of the men said, “Oh, this is, this is not good […] This is a Muslim woman, and this is not the Muslim way. You do not go and sell your body, this is a disgrace, she should not be doing this.”

The other man in their party countered that it was not for any of them to judge what she should or should not be doing since they did not know her particular circumstances.

Finally, Matthew took sides with one of the men and spoke up, saying, “I agree with Ali. It is not what she should be doing. […] I believe Ali is right, I think —“

And this was when Matthew was stopped by Ali (the person whom he was siding), who snapped at him, “It is not about right or wrong. It is about ‘Do you understand?!‘”

Matthew, by recounting this incident in his memoir, is trying to illustrate a better way for us to live with one another:

They are not trying to win arguments of right or wrong. They are trying to understand each other. That’s different. Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights (2020)

That was the moment I heard the glass shatter. This is it! This explains the problem with how I view discussions. I have been trying to be right instead of trying to understand the other person.

I see two main reasons why making this distinction matters:

  1. Because it is fundamental to keeping your relationships healthy
  2. Because in trying to be right, you tunnel-vision and block the growth of your understanding of the world

Let’s expand on each of these reasons.

How does focusing on understanding instead of what or who is right help keep relationships healthy?

First, by not introducing a hierarchy through competition. Competition only works if there is a winner that can be crowned and losers who can be juxtaposed against the winner to make that crown shine. A debate is a competition.

When you view a person as your competitor, you have decided to win over that person. As a result, you cannot love that person fully because you cannot be happy for their success, which will only ever come with your defeat.

Even if the situation is that you are consistently winning, you will never have a moment of peace because you don’t want to be a loser. This means you cannot ever trust other people. It’s easy to understand that no relationship can survive without trust.

Second, by not intruding on the job of making up the other person’s mind for them, you ensure your relationship with the other person is built on independence. This is the crux of the mental model of separation of tasks as espoused by the Austrian psychologist and medical doctor, Alfred Adler.

In the book The Courage to Be Disliked, which is based heavily on Adler’s individual psychology theories, the idea of separation of tasks is to learn to respect who should be the decision-maker in any given scenario.

Applied to a discussion between two or more people, separation of tasks tells us that each individual is solely responsible for the task of making up their minds about the topic being discussed. How he should feel, whether he absorbs the idea into his life and let them inform his future actions - these are, well, none of your business. Your business ends with you articulating your opinion for others to consider.

I now see in retrospect that I could have prevented damaging many relationships simply by practising this separation of tasks with discussions.

This is, of course, an ideal that is hard to achieve. When someone speaks unkindly towards us, our instinct is to stand up for ourselves and snapback.

Take for example a recent article that I wrote on this blog. It was an opinion piece where I shared my view on what to do about politics as an adult. When I shared it on Facebook and Twitter, I received several comments that were more emotionally charged than usual. More than half of them aired disagreements. I took some of it personally and spent time retorting, convincing myself that I was trying to help them see my actual point. I burned at least one bridge that day doing this.

Now let’s turn that around and look at a positive example. When I was on a university field trip in the Philippines, a coursemate and I started to discuss the validity of the notions put forward by Christianity. Generally, a discussion about religion does not end amicably. This one somehow did.

Sarah and I took turns to speak and listen, both of us curiously trying (and trying hard) to follow the twists and turns of the other person’s argument. We were trying to understand what the other person was saying and we were open to taking the position of the other despite me being an ‘agnostic’ (i.e. I don’t know if there is a god and don’t care much about finding out) and with her being a Christian. I came out of that discussion filled with thoughts I had never had and my perspective of Christianity and religion, in general, has never been the same since.

The discussion ended when the bus stopped, but neither of us was pissed at each other. I remember clearly that she came up to me later that day to thank me for a fruitful discussion and said that she now has a few things to ponder about. I thanked her too.

This is how all discussions should feel. And I believe it is how all discussions can feel if we approached them focusing on understanding.

Focusing exclusively on trying to understand the other person’s assertions (instead of trying to reassert yours) helps you to grow as you enrich your worldview, either by strengthening your existing one, augmenting it with a newfound nuance, or adopting something entirely new.

A nice side effect of this is that you save time convincing other people of your argument, which is an often time-consuming and mentally draining affair. Choose to reinvest that time into deeply examining what someone is saying, or posing the next logical question. Ultimately, you improve your understanding of the world further.

To round off this discussion, let’s take a moment to consider this question: why is it enough to understand and not be right? Why should convincing the other person not be part of the consideration when discussing a matter?

Well, to begin, there is the fact that sometimes ‘right’ cannot be defined.

I like using the example of the cup with a leaky bottom. Suppose you have a cup with a leaky bottom. Water slowly leaks through the tiny hole at its base. Is this still a cup? Most people would say yes. Now imagine the hole is a little bigger. Still a cup? Okay. It’s a little bigger now. Still a cup? Okay… now, what if the cup had such a big hole at the bottom it might as well be a tube with a handle? Would you still consider this thing a cup?

You believe that a cup with a hole wider than, say, 1cm, can no longer be considered a cup, but I, on the other hand, believe that unless it had no base, it is still a cup. Who is right?

This is the first reason why striving to be right and to ‘win’ at a conversation is often tricky.

Also, sometimes there is more than one right way to understand something, and we should apply pragmatism to the business of truth-seeking. It takes time to understand the world and we need to be pragmatic about the endeavour, considering that each of us has limited time before the sickle of Death picks us up and takes us away. The tradeoff is between empiricism and convenience.

And finally, as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink.

Publish an opinion, leave your comment, have the confidence that you did your best to lead the reader to the river, and let him decide whether he drinks or not. And be the horse when it is your turn to be led, drinking only if you decide to. Then, just gently walk away.


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