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.

Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
Surprising Science
  • A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
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  • The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
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Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
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  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
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The power of authority: how easily we do what we’re told

Milgram's experiment is rightly famous, but does it show what we think it does?

Credit: MEHDI FEDOUACH via Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram was sure that good, law-abiding Americans would never be able to follow orders like the Germans in the Holocaust.
  • His experiments proved him spectacularly wrong. They showed just how many of us are willing to do evil if only we're told to by an authority figure.
  • Yet, parts of the experiment were set up in such a way that we should perhaps conclude something a bit more nuanced.
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