How to Resolve Any Argument—Even Nasty Political Ones

Getting into an argument is easy. But getting out by having both sides see the other side? Not as impossible as you might think.

DAN SHAPIRO: So here we are trying to negotiate what might seem nonnegotiable. Why do these things feel so nonnegotiable? 

One reason is that we hold certain values and beliefs as sacred. The other side holds alternative values and beliefs as sacred. And if my beliefs don’t match up with yours we have an impasse, we have gridlock. 

The question is, can you get out of gridlock, and how do you get out of gridlock? Is it true that you cannot negotiate the non-negotiable? You can.

The most powerful tool I know on how to negotiate the nonnegotiable is the power of appreciation. What I mean by that, it is the ability to deeply listen to the other side’s perspective not just so that you can argue back but so that they feel heard. 

Now this is the hardest thing to do in the world. If you’re a strong Clintonite or Trumpite, to say,
“you know, start by understanding that other side’s perspective”—You’re going to look at me like, “you’re crazy.” 

And even if you don’t think I’m crazy, you’re going to try and do it, and let me tell you what I see happen a lot. People try to understand the other side and two minutes later they say, “Oh no, I understand your perspective, but you’re just wrong!” 

It’s not a two minute conversation. It’s at least a half hour to an hour. 

It’s not, “Yeah, I get it.” 

It’s, “No, I don’t get it. Help me understand it. Tell me more. Talk to me.”
That’s the kind of conversation we want, whether it’s in the political sphere or whether it is, you know, an individual negotiating with their spouse. 

The moment anybody—with even the most sacred beliefs—starts to feel heard and valued, their arms are going to uncross, they’re going to lean forward and they’re going to say “you get it.” Now the danger is they might then say “so why don’t you come to my side?” — ha ha! But that’s okay. You’ve moved forward. They feel heard. The next most important piece then is to say, “And just as you have your perspective, I have mine. I have my own sacred values. Would you be open to listening to me and to my perspective? I understand we are coming from”—notice the next word. It’s not, “But you’re wrong!”, you know. And that’s how most of our conversations take place. You look at the political sphere today: “I understand, but…” 

I was recently talking with a congressperson. He said, “Look, I went and I talked to a whole group of constituents about this one particular issue, and then I said ‘I understand your perspective,’” which was different than his.

And after he explained why he understood, all of a sudden two minutes later he said, “But.” 

And I said to him, “Boy, you lost that whole set of constituents right now. They don’t feel appreciated.”

You want to say, “And.”

“I hear where you’re coming from, and I see the value in your perspective. And I’m letting you know.” That can start to break through the walls of the sacred. Once the other side feels truly heard and understood, now they’re much more likely to listen to you. And you might start sharing a little bit about your own perspectives. And instead of saying, “Do you get where I’m coming from,” you can say, “What do you hear me saying?” 

And simply by asking that question, "What do you hear me saying?”, it forces the other almost to empathize with your perspective, at least to try and take that stance of understanding. Now success for the other side is accurately reflecting back what you said. Failure is the failure to actually have listened, which allows you to then correct. 

“So what do you hear me saying? I’m not sure I’m being clear about why I believe in this candidate and what they stand for. What do you hear me saying?”

So I think step one is for each side to truly understand in a really real way that other side’s perspective. 

And it’s true, it’s not just one side understanding the other. Each side has to work to understand the other’s perspective. 

Now this can easily turn into a fire when one side says, “You know, you’re crazy. I can’t believe you are my relative—you’re my son, my daughter… Oh, I... Boy, you know, I didn’t raise you the way I wanted to raise you. Your value systems are different than the way I thought they should be. You are wrong for believing what you believe.”

Now that moment in time, that’s the critical moment. 

Are you going to respond at that point in time, when the other side is attacking your belief systems, by saying, “F you, no, it’s your fault! You’re wrong!” 

Or at that point in time are you going to say, “You know what? Help me understand more.” 

And that might seem soft and weak. It is the toughest and hardest thing to do. I’ve worked with hostage negotiators, with crisis negotiators in situations of war. This is what moves things forward. That ability to deeply listen to the other side even when they’re throwing that toxic energy at you. 

You don’t need to absorb it all. You don’t need to sort of swallow all that negative energy. My advice is just let that negative energy fly right by you, hit the wall behind you. 

You’re listening for the message. You are holding onto the meaning that they’re sharing, but you’re not going to let their approach, their adversarial approach to this conversation dominate the framing of how you’re going to have a conversation. 

So people say “listen,” and listening is the hardest thing in the world to do, you know. 

When it comes to emotionally charged conflicts, why is it so hard to listen? Because my identity is feeling threatened. You’re not just attacking some cerebral ideas I have. You are attacking my value system, my... what I believe represents the core safety of my family, of myself. The meaning I bring to life. 

And once you attack that, oh, it’s really hard not to have that snake’s head, you know, go and bite off your head.

Another tool that you can use in a conflict situation is to ask advice. The moment you find yourself in conflict with the other side don’t entrench yourself in your position: “This is my position. What’s your position on healthcare?” Boy, that’s going to get you nowhere except toward impasse and gridlock. 

Instead ask, “What’s your advice? Look, you know more about the other side’s perspective than I do. I know more about mine. What’s your advice on how we might work most effectively together? What’s your advice on some policies that might address your interests and maybe some of my constituent's interest as well?” The moment you ask advice it almost automatically invites the other person from that role of adversary into the role of colleague.

 

Everyone is good at starting an argument. It's easy. Just lob a verbal bomb at the other side and duck for cover. Presto! You've created an argument. But what about finishing an argument? What about finding an agreement with the other person? Dan Shapiro would know. As the Director of the prestigious Harvard International Negotiation Program, he knows a thing or two about getting two diametrically opposed sides to not only speak to one another but also work together to resolve the conflict. It all comes down to how either side presents itself to the other: think less "I'm right, tell me how you're wrong" and (much) more along the lines of "What do you hear me saying?". That way, Shapiro suggests, you're starting off on the same step rather than positioning yourself as the person in authority.


Dan's advice is wholly relevant given today's political and media environs: people really should look to come together rather than winning some supposed argument. Because it isn't that hyperbolic—given how angry each side of the political aisle is with one another—to say that this approach could save American democracy.

Dan Shapiro's latest book is Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

popular
  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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White-nose syndrome is nearly as lethal to bats as the Black Plague was for humans.

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  • Bats serve a crucial role in our ecosystem and economy, and white-nose syndrome is already pushing many species to the brink of extinction.
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