Intro. [Recording date: April 27, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is April 27th, 2021 and my guest is author Ian Leslie. He writes the newsletter The Ruffian, and his latest book is Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes. Ian, welcome to EconTalk.
Ian Leslie: Thank you, Russ. It's a great honor to be here.
Russ Roberts: Your book opens by asking: What's getting in the way of our productive conversations? In theory, conversations are more than just passing time. EconTalk, I like to think about, is a way we learn things from each other and those listening in get to share in that. But often, it doesn't work out that way. Why?
Ian Leslie: Well, one of the key features of a productive conversation is a conflict of views, right? The moment you get in to a conflict of views or a disagreement is the moment that you have to think a bit harder about why you said that or why you think that after examining your own assumptions and find arguments and reasons for your point of view.
And, a lot of us find that process very stressful. In fact, most of us find it stressful or uncomfortable to some degree. And so, disagreement and argument is something that we often shy away from.
Or, the opposite problem is we do it so aggressively and clumsily that the conversation just becomes noise and sheds no light, just generates heat.
So, really, the mission of the book is to help us have better disagreements--to express our differences directly and openly, but in a way that generates light rather than just heat.
Russ Roberts: I think a lot of people are conflict-averse, right? In America right now, and I'm sure it's also true in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, certain issues have become so charged--political issues, ideology differences. Sometimes it's religion, but right now often it's politics--which can be a religion, very passionately held, often connects us to people who we feel in community with the way religion can.
And so, those conversations, as you say, are either not taking place because people are afraid of raising a, quote, "dangerous topic," or they become shouting matches.
Why is it important to have those conversations? Wouldn't it be better just to leave them alone? Doesn't polite dinner talk avoid such thorny topics?
Ian Leslie: Yeah. You know what? When I started thinking--
Russ Roberts: It's a rhetorical question, but go ahead--
Ian Leslie: Yeah. I know. When I started thinking about this book, and it was really just looking around at the public discourse and seeing all the terrible, toxic arguments that people were getting into, and I thought, 'Okay. Well, I'm going to write a book about basically how to avoid that,' you know: how to avoid confrontational conflict. And, 'Let's just--by the way, we just talk everything through really calmly.'
And, the more I thought about it, the more I reflected on it, the more it seemed like that's a--the toxicity is really the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that probably because we see all those terrible arguments on social media now, we avoid it. We shy away from it altogether.
So, because we see disagreement going wrong, we go, 'Okay. Well, disagreement is really a bad thing, and I don't want to get into that.' But when we do that, we just miss out on the immense benefits of disagreement and conflict. Because disagreement is basically a way of thinking, and it may be the way of thinking, actually.
In the book, I argue that we are actually evolved to think in concert with other people. That, our intelligence is essentially interactive and collaborative, and that most thinking is not best done in magnificent isolation--kind of like Rodin's The Thinker, a very deep person, just going deep inside their own mind.
We actually do much better thinking when we're in groups where we are disagreeing with each other and we're kind of making the best case that we can for our point of view and then listening to what the others say.
There's a couple more benefits. I think it makes us smarter. So, I think when we avoid it, we get a bit stupider.
There a couple more things. One is we--it actually counterintuitively brings us closer together when we do it well. Because, as one psychologist said to me--a psychologist who studies couples, relationships--she said that conflict is information. In an argument with your partner, or indeed, your colleague or whatever, you're learning about them, right? You're learning about what they really care about, what they really think when the veil civility or passivity is kind of stripped away or lifted a little bit. And that will update your model of who they are, right? And that ultimately will bring you closer; and if you don't do it, you'll just drift apart without an angry word exchanged.
And then a third reason, just briefly, is related to the first one, really, which is creativity and innovation, which we know, you know, comes from the clash of different insights and different points of view. And, disagreement and argument can be an incredibly, a real engine of creative thought.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I want to start with that--the very first point you made in that answer--which I like to think about as being true. It might not be true, but I think part of it is certainly true: which is that we evolve to disagree. We evolve to think in groups.
And I think that's such a--actually, quite a radical idea. Part of it is because of that romance we have about the lonely thinker--you know, me and my armchair. Which is underrated, by the way, also, because I think most of us have trouble thinking for anything more than 10 or 15 seconds these days. But, having the ability to think deeply about something for a long time is a very powerful, I think, thing for an individual. But, even more powerful is: after you've done that--to let your argument rub up against somebody else's argument for checking and rethinking.
So, many great ideas I've had after I've talked to with someone I realize, 'Not such a great idea,' or even more importantly, 'Great idea if I change this.'
And, I think one of the things I hate about debate is debate are just two people yelling. Conversation is that give and take, back and forth exploration--emergent phenomenon--that I think is greatly underrated as way of learning and as a way of thinking.
And I think we under-appreciate--especially today when people are afraid to speak their mind increasingly--I don't think people are aware, often, of what we're losing. What we're losing is the ability to discover things together, and that's just--it's the backbone of civilization.
Ian Leslie: I agree. In fact, almost literally, it's the backbone or the foundation of Western thought. You've had Agnes Callard on this podcast, and I was influenced by her ideas on this. And, you know, she talks about Socrates. You know, Socrates didn't write anything down--famously. He distrusted this 'writing,' which was probably like the smartphone today--a new technology, the older generation slightly distrusted. And the reason he didn't trust it was that it couldn't talk back, and he couldn't engage it in--he's a [?]--in a conversation.
And so, he clearly thought, he basically laid the foundations down of Western inquiry, which is, you know: We get together and we work things out in dispute and argument.
And Agnes calls it the division of epistemic labor. You have different people in the group taking different points of view, and that enables those different points of view to come together and bounce off each other or clash and fuse, whatever it is.
And there's a really interesting theory from a couple of evolutionary psychologists, Mercier and Sperber, who have a kind of evolutionary take on this, where they basically suggest that our biases are actually only flaws if you look at the individual. Once you accept that thinking is interactive--that thinking is essentially a collaborative activity--you see that our biases can actually contribute to the intelligence of the group. Because, if you're in a group of people and everybody is trying to make their best case for their particular point of view, and everybody is motivated to do that, then you get a Darwinian process of generation and variation and selection. The weakest arguments--because you're motivated not just to make your own case, but to knock out the other arguments, right?--so, the weak arguments will get weeded out quickly and the strong ones will, well, the most robust ones will survive.
So, in that sense, they see confirmation bias as a bug if you're thinking on your own, but a feature if you're thinking as part of the group.
But for that to go well, for that model to work properly, you've got to have participants who are doing both at once--essentially trying to make the best case they can as individuals, but at the same time having at least part of their brain thinking, 'What matters is not that I am right. At the end of the day, what matters is that we are right as a group.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think that's extremely deep. It was one of my favorite insights from the book, by the way. I'm just going to quote the line that summarizes the approach. You say, "We don't just do our thinking in the brain, however. We do it with each other."
And this evolutionary--potentially correct, who knows?--but it's so thought-provoking: This idea that confirmation bias, which I make fun of all the time on this program, and realizing how much I have of it over time, is a fascinating thing. Those two psychologists--are they psychologists, Mercier and--?
Ian Leslie: They're evolutionary psychologists, yeah, cognitive psychologists with an evolutionary background.
Russ Roberts: And, what's their names again?
Ian Leslie: Sperber and Mercier.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Mercier and Sperber. This idea that confirmation bias, you say they call it my-side bias. So, I have a bias for my side--sure, okay. But, that just makes me a better arguer. Which is important. You don't want me to just dismiss my view quickly and immediately glom on to someone else's view. This idea that I spar with you, I give you my best argument, and I'm difficult to persuade, is a disaster, as you say, for myself; but in a group, it's great.
And the key, I think, is the point that you have to share a goal.
So, in a marriage, or a workplace environment where the organization has an overarching goal, and you could put down your ego--which is incredibly hard to do in either a marriage or a workplace situation--but if you can do that, then argument is fabulous. Because you learn where the best place to go is that you otherwise wouldn't be aware of.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. I mean, it's a great paradox, you know: In order for a group to think rationally, at least some of the members should behave at least somewhat irrationally. That's how I would sum that up.
For me, it's a great insight because it aligns with one of the things I wanted to get right in the book, which is that argument and disagreement should be emotional, right? The kind of idea that, actually: Yeah, the problem with it is we get emotional about things and if we just--what a male view of the world--we just take emotion out of it and we just talk about facts and rational points of view, then every disagreement can be sorted out in like an Oxford seminar. And, to me, that seems both unrealistic and also pretty boring. I think a disagreement should be heart and soul, and people should feel free to throw themselves into it and get a little bit of emotion.
And, you know what? Emotion helps us think.
Now, I mean, this isn't in the book, by the way, but I was just reading a biography of Wittgenstein--the great English, sorry, German, Viennese, rather, Austrian philosopher--and he turns up at Bertrand Russell's rooms and they start getting into these arguments over mathematical logic, essentially.
Basically, the most abstract driest topic you can imagine. According to Russell, who kept a diary of it, they were incredibly emotional. They're both, particularly Wittgenstein, but both of them would get very, very passionate about these incredibly arcane disputes; and they made a huge amount of progress because of it. That was part of Russell's point.
So, we think with our emotions. We think best when our emotions are switched on, not when we kind of suppress them or take out of the conversation.
And yeah, that really connects to this idea that, actually, a little bit of stubbornness, a little bit of stickiness, a little bit of, 'Yeah, I am going to push this a little bit further than perhaps I should go here. Certainly, I'm not just going to back down the moment I experience any doubt, the moment I think you might be right.' If you do that, actually, you're not reaping the full benefit of the disagreement.
Russ Roberts: So, you referenced the work of Charlan Nemeth, who has been a guest on the program also, and her finding that being a devil's advocate for the sake of being a devil's advocate doesn't really work very well. You have to actually be able to convince your fellow discussants that you care about it. Talk about that.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So, I mean, she's the expert on this. I mean, she's an expert on dissent, in particular. And, a lot of companies came to the realization that the group thing was bad, right? That was the first kind of level they got to: 'Okay. We shouldn't just have these meetings where the leader speaks and then everyone goes along with what the leader says.' There's got to be somebody giving a contrary point of view. So, they appoint people. They give them devil's advocate's role and they say, 'You are the one who's got to argue the contrary point of view.'
And that, according to Nemeth's work, doesn't work as well as when somebody in the group who really does believe that the rest of group is wrong makes the case, right?
It might seem obvious, but it's an actually incredibly important point. We communicate our arguments much more convincingly and persuasively when we truly believe in them. The rest of the group can sense that he or she has something at stake, something invested in this argument, and that it's not just a kind of nice intellectual game. And, that's the other function of emotion in an argument, is: it shows that you have a skin in this game, effectively.
Indeed, a big theme of my book is that I set out lots of rules and guidelines for productive disagreement but the overall, the [?] rule, is you've got to mean it. Right? You can't just approach a disagreement or a difficult conversation as something that you're going to practice a series of little techniques and tricks on.
You have to manage the conversation as well as you can, but, ultimately, you have to be authentically interested in what the other person has to say and you have to be honest about what you think as much as you can. So, yeah, honest emotional investment is a really key part of this.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. There's really nothing worse than arguing with someone, or better yet, talking with someone--I think 'arguing' is a subtle word; sharing ideas with someone is what I'll call it--who is, quote, "going through the motions" rather than actually engaged in the issues that are on the table.
Russ Roberts: Talk about one of the ideas I really loved in the book is, that I never heard before, and I think I'll be using it a lot, is low-context versus high-context communication via words. We often think of words as just, 'Well, they mean what they mean. But emotion, as you say, plays a huge role, and nuance, and I like that distinction. Explain what it is.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. So, this comes from anthropology, and it comes from a cross-cultural anthropology. So, it's often use to discuss the differences between different national or regional cultures. Although as we'll see, I think it applies in many more ways than that. But, let's just use that because it's an easy model for people to grasp.
So, high-context culture is one in which tradition and norms do a lot of the communicating for you--the context does a lot of communicating for you. Actually, you don't actually necessarily have to say much, and you certainly don't have to say much directly in order for people to understand your intent and what to do.
So, an example of a high-context culture is China, and the Asian countries, where when a group of people are around a table, there's a lot of ambiguity, there's a lot of obliqueness, a lot of subtlety in the way they communicate with each other; and there's a great emphasis on maintaining the relationships in the room. And, saying directly what you think, and certainly directly disagreeing with people, is frowned upon. Okay. Now, we're talking in broad brush strokes here, so, excuse me for stereotyping; but the gist of this is true.
Low-context culture is where you can't rely on that shared understanding, that common background, those norms and traditions that you get because everybody is from different backgrounds. It's much more diverse, and there just isn't that commonwealth of norms to draw on. And therefore, you've got to talk everything out: you've got to use words a lot.
So, America is a much more low-context culture. You've got people from different backgrounds coming into a room together and they're much more used to just saying what I think, and trying to explain everything.
Now, what happens when you explain everything and everybody else is explaining what they think? You get a lot more disagreement, because you realize everybody has a different point of view and some of those points of view will clash.
Now, the reason this is so interesting is that the world is just generally moving towards a more low-context culture everywhere you look. Right? The world is becoming more low context, because all the things that drive low context cultures--more diversity, more higher turnover of people, the erasure of traditions, the fragmentation of social norms--all those vectors are applying to more and more countries, including China, right? So, there might be different levels, but we are all kind of moving in a low-context direction.
And, the Internet is an absolutely low-context environment, where that's taken to an extreme in some places, particularly on social media, where you're dealing with people, where you have no idea where they're from, they might be completely anonymous. You have no idea. There's no relationship there. There's no kind of shared 'we all know' or 'we all agree on this.' There's just you and your words, and often just the words. So, you don't even have the context of physical presence or someone's voice if you're on Twitter. You just see words in a box.
So, it's about the most low-context form of conversation, and disagreement, and argument that you can get. And therefore, it's really dry tinder for hostile and frequent disagreement.
So, really, I talk about this in the opening chapter because it's a way of saying, 'Look, for most of our history as a species and as a culture, we've lived in high-context environments,' right? We've lived in environments where we all shared a culture with each other. For most of European history, for instance, we were Catholic, and then we're Protestant and Catholic; and then everything starts to subdivide; and then it becomes more and more low context.
We've been able to rely on hierarchy, being told what to think or what to behave, even within the home, right? Just 50 years ago, there was a much stronger sense of, 'Okay. Well, the man is going to do the job, and the woman is going to stay at home.' 'Children are told what to do by their parents. They don't talk back.' You had this whole set of norms and traditions informing your behavior and giving you a guide to what to think and what to do.
Much of that has gone away.
Now, everybody is expected to speak their mind. Everybody's got a point of view. So, we live in this raucus, diverse--and, I love it. I think you do, too. It's great, but it does mean that there's inevitably a lot more conflict and disagreement, and we haven't caught up in terms of thinking about how to do it well, right? So, nobody comes along and says, 'Here's how you need to--we're going to train you in disagreement at work.'
In the workplace, there's a huge emphasis on getting along, on cooperation, and on not treading on each other's toes, but very little emphasis on disagreeing well. It's good to have an emphasis on diversity and saying, 'I want the people around this table to come from different backgrounds'--different whether that's religious or gender or ethnic background. I mean, we should do that just because that's social justice, right? There's a justice reason to do that.
There's also a kind of unlocking the benefits of different perspectives on a problem. There's that productivity reason to do it, as well.
But, you don't unlock that until those people disagree with one another. If you have a group of diverse people sitting around a table and they're all just nodding along going, 'Yup. You're absolutely right. Yup. Very good. Yeah. Carry on,' then certainly from a productivity or an innovation point of view, it's a waste of time.
So, I really think that we need to get better at it and get more ease with it in order to unlock the immense benefits of cognitive diversity.
Russ Roberts: I just [?] that idea of context. You know, on Twitter, sometimes people will make a joke; and about some significant portion of the audience doesn't know it's a joke. Now, if you're sitting in the audience, literally at an event where somebody is speaking, there's laughter to cue you, and you go, 'That was a joke.' You might see the facial expression on the person who made it, 'Oh, it was a joke.' But without that, mistakes happen all the time.
And, the part that's, I think, strangest about social media is the ease with which we fill in the context we don't have.
So, if this person said x, that must mean I've got this huge picture and so many times when I used to spar more on Twitter, sometimes I'd just write back, 'You don't know me.' 'Let's just leave it at that,' or 'Have you read anything I've written besides that last week? You act like you know me or you act like you've been listening to EconTalk.'
And, I think that underlying all of this conversation we're having is our urge or need or desire for connection. We don't think about arguing as a way of connecting, but it is.
It's a form of conversation. It's a form of connecting. It's a way of sharing ideas with another human being. And I think when that context gets filled in inaccurately, which when you're limited 140 characters or whatever Twitter is, you're going to have that happen more often than not. Or when people email quickly. They don't write the long letters of the past where they fill in asides and caveats. They're in a hurry and they just dash it off. And people frequently misinterpret that; and that connection that I think we long for as human beings just gets snapped or a connection we thought we had. And I think that's part of what has gone wrong with social media, is this--the nature of it often causes disconnection rather than connection.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. I think you make a great point, particularly when you say that we fill in what's not there.
So, the problem is not just that it's low context--because you could react to a low-context conversation by being a bit more tentative in the way you approach the subject where, you're like, 'I don't know this person. I've got no idea about how they arrived at that point of view. So, maybe I'm just going to go a little bit easy on them because let's just tease this out a little bit more and see how we go.'
No, we don't react like that. We go, 'You terrible person. This person is clearly awful.' We fill in the blanks and we go, 'Okay. This person fits my stereotype of A, B or C, and therefore, I can do what Tyler Cowen calls devalue and dismiss.' I can say, 'Oh, I know you. I know your type.' My curiosity just shuts down.
And, one of the antidotes to polarization--and there's some empirical evidence for this, and it's also just intuitively true--one of the antidotes to polarization is curiosity: getting actually interested either in the other person and why they think that or in the evidence that's being discussed.
You know, if you can get somebody who says they don't think climate change is a problem--they're a Republican--if you can somehow get them interested in the ice caps melting, 'So, why do we think that's happening?' then, actually, their strong point of view about climate change just sort of--like the ice cap--dissolves,' and they become much more kind of willing to be flexible in their thinking. Because suddenly, you've piqued their interest and their curiosity in the subject.
And I think when you get into that mindset of, 'Oh, this person is disagreeing with me. I'm just going to shove them aside effectively'--mentally or with a click of a mouse--then, the alternative is to get into a curiosity mindset and say, 'Well, okay, but why does that person think that and how did they arrive at that point of view? What's the interesting question that our disagreement raises?'
Russ Roberts: Well, I think that's part of the challenge of social media right now, with the the current set of norms is that curiosity is usually just punished or ignored. The problem, I think, with a lot of social media is that you can just run away when you feel like you can throw a grenade and then just disappear. You can do it anonymously, often. But when two people are together, especially if they're forced together by circumstance, they actually have a chance to be curious.
And, I think the other problem, of course, with social media is if you show curiosity, the other members of your team might mock you for treating another person like a human being--for imagining that they could share something with you, that they are not evil; and that's a betrayal of the home team. I think that's part of the reason social media can be so unproductive.
I think as long as you block enough people, you can actually have, I think, good conversations on social media. I've had many. So, I don't want to vilify it per se. But I think what's missing from social media and what's available in in-person conversation is the chance to explore things in a way it's much, much harder to do online.
First of all, you get the facial expression. You get the shrug, the gesture. You can press for more information without fear of being judged, right? One of the things that I find so painful about Twitter and other public online conversations is if you push back at all, you have to then at least, you have to say, 'But, of course, I'm not one of those.' So, you always have to be constantly verifying your bonafides, your credentials as a team member. And I think it's just a disaster for a real human interaction.
Ian Leslie: 'It's just a disaster,' I think sums it up. I mean, yeah, that's what--you're trying to put context back in, right? You're constantly trying to put the context back in, because the context just means that this disagreement is not just about the disagreement.
There's a great observation made by Eli Pariser, the guy who coined the 'filter bubble.' He said some of the best political disagreements that he's witnessed take place online in sports forums. And, it's because the context is set, right? There's more context there: We're all a fan of this sport. We're all a fan of this team. Okay. So, that means that we can have an argument about politics or a discussion of politics without it getting hostile because our relationship is about, even if we don't know each other, our relationship is already about more than just the disagreement we're having. Right?
So, communication scientists talk about these two fundamental levels that are going on in any conversation: There's the relationship level and there's the content level. And, the content level is the thing that we are talking about, the thing that we are verbalizing, whether it's who's going to take the trash out or who should be the next President. And, the relationship level is unspoken, unarticulated, but in some ways, it's more important. It sort of precedes the content level.
The relationship level is: 'What do you think about me? What do I think about you? Do you like me? Do you respect me?' Okay? And, that comes across in all sorts of ways. That can come across in the tone of your voice, the particular words that you choose, your body language, and all sorts of other extraneous factors.
But, until that relationship level is settled--unless it's essentially agreement at that relationship level where we're both comfortable with the way that we think the other is seeing us--the content level just gets disrupted. It's like there's an earthquake going on beneath and we're trying to focus on what we're meant to be talking about--politics or domestic arrangements or whatever it is--and we can't because we're constantly being destabilized from below.
So, the really skillful disagreers, the skillful interlocutors, are always looking for ways to settle that relationship level. And often that means making the other person feel more secure, and effectively saying without saying it, 'You're okay. I'm okay with you. You're okay with me,' okay? That might be explicitly some flattery. It might be kind of pointing out that on some things, we agree on. It might be just signaling that you understand that they're a good person: this disagreement is not about who is a good and a bad person. We're both good people here.
There's all sorts of ways you can do it. But, you're trying to kind of--because, often when you see somebody reacting really irrationally or emotionally or with hostility, your temptation is to think, 'Well, they're just a terrible person.' Maybe they are, right? Sometimes they are. But, often it's because they feel insecure in some way. They feel like they're risking humiliation. So, therefore, your job is to reassure them that's not going to happen, that actually we can get into this argument and this disagreement and we're going to both walk away feeling good about each other.
Russ Roberts: Well, we've been talking mostly about disagreement over politics or responsibilities in a marriage, but a lot of your book is about difficult conversations where someone might be caught in the commission of a crime, be in a situation where they are threatening someone physically; and most of the examples in your book have happy results. The police officer talks down the person rather than escalating it into something worse. And that happens in the examples you give. I mean, I think it's incredibly important by the person recognizing the humanity of the other person before they tell them what they want.
The most trivial example of this is the teenager who comes home late. You have a couple of examples of this in the book. Teenager comes home late. The parents' natural response is anger: 'You've betrayed me. You're supposed to be home by this such and such time,' and that just causes the other person to dig in their heels. And then what's going to come next is often bad.
And the reason is, is that because what's really going on isn't a discussion of whether it's good or bad to come home late. The discussion underlying it, the context that's really at stake is: 'I want to be an independent human being, and you're not letting me be one.' And as the parent, the underlying conversation is, 'I care for you. I'm afraid going to do damage to yourself, and I have a need to control you, because you used to be very prone to damaging yourself, and I have trouble recognizing perhaps that you have gotten older and a little more autonomous, and should be.'
I think underlying all of that is this theme we've talked about of respect--and the reverse, which is death[?] is contempt. So, if I have contempt for what you're doing, and I think it's wrong and I tell you so, instead of you going, 'Oh, yeah, you're right. You know what? That was a horrible decision. What was I thinking, drinking and driving?' Instead, your brain is going to lock in to a different mode as the teenager and defend yourself. You'll find a reason why you had to drink and drive, why you're not going to have a civil, rational conversation.
And I think that underlying emotional current--and you talk about it in many different ways in the book--you know, there's a lot of practical things in your book, but I think of all of them this might be the most practical: That, often a discussion or an argument, or a disagreement, especially when there's danger or risk to the relationship, our brain is thinking, 'It's about the content,' but it's actually not about the content at all. It's about the underlying emotional relationship, and how hard it is to step back from that, and if you can, you're going to have a better marriage, better friendships; you're going to be more effective at work.
That's my biggest takeaway. I have a lot of them, by the way. I have a lot of takeaways from your book. But for me, that's so hard to remember because when you're saying something foolish, Ian, my brain is, like, 'What an idiot!' And, I don't stop and think, 'Well, wait a minute. Maybe it's not foolish. Maybe I'm foolish.' I don't stop to think, 'Maybe he said that because I hurt his feelings, and he's just angry and he's faced with a choice between fight or flight and he chose fight. And he doesn't really mean it.' But all I do is fight back, and instead of going back and pulling it down--I think the emotional level and recognizing what's happening beneath the surface.
And, I think we think about the art of conversation--which I think about a lot, obviously, as the host of a podcast--I think that emotional piece of it, what's happening under the surface, is the deepest challenging piece of being, I think, a first rate conversationalist.
Ian Leslie: I agree. And it's the most cognitively demanding part of the whole exercise. Because, you're trying to concentrate on what you want to say on that kind of content level; and at the same time, you have to reserve some of your brain for the relationship level, like, 'How is this going? How is this person responding to me? Are they feeling insecure or not?'
And, I love talking to people who do this in extreme situations. So, as you know, I talk to interrogation experts and hostage negotiators and so on, because the really good ones, they are very, very skilled at working on those different levels. But, I think it's something we all have to do to some degree.
When you're interrogating somebody--and I knew this because I actually role-played an interrogation where they got an actor to play a criminal, and it's really horrifically hard to do--because with your kind of like content-brain, you're thinking about all the details of the case, and the evidence, and what information they might have in their brain, and what information you need to get out of it in order for this interrogation to go well. That's very intellectually demanding.
But at the same time, you're dealing with somebody who really doesn't want to talk to you or wants to upset you or annoy you, who wants the conversation to go badly, effectively. And you're trying to manage that conversation, as well. So, you're working on these kind of like different levels. Sorry. Go on.
Russ Roberts: No, go ahead.
Ian Leslie: The other kind of--this is another way of saying what you've just been saying, which is: you've got to try and avoid the conversation turning into a struggle for dominance.
That's really how many, many disagreements go wrong. They become power struggles.
And the really skilled interrogators, for instance, do not walk into the room--it's not like like you see on TV or in the movies, or at least the good ones do not behave like this. They don't walk into the room and bang the table and say, 'All right. You tell me what you know. Otherwise, we're going to--' whatever, because they know, actually, that's entirely counterproductive. What you then get is, you're just shutting the other person down, effectively. In fact, you're making it easy for them. They're trained and certainly mentally prepared for that situation. And the moment you do that, it's like, 'Fine. I'm in a power struggle. I don't have to say anything.'
Now, the really skilled interrogators walk into the room and they make a big deal of the fact that you have the right not to talk. They don't mumble past that bit. There are different rights in different countries, but over here, you know, they have the right not to talk, they have the right for a lawyer. They can leave the room if--they don't actually have to subject themselves in the interrogation. And, inexperienced cops will just mumble over that part, saying, 'You have the right not to talk here, [mumble].'
Anyway. And, the really skilled interrogators will actually walk into the room and say, 'Look, I can't make you talk. You can absolutely not say anything. In fact, you can leave the room. I can't tell you what to do. This lawyer can't tell you what to do. None of us can tell you what to do. So, it's up to you. But, I would just really like to understand how you got here. I'm interested.' And they are. By the way, they are genuinely curious people, right? This is not just a sort of trick.
These hardened, elite terrorists--they've been trained for this situation for years--just open up and gush and tell their story. Because they really do want to tell their story. The pressure is building up inside them, and you're just basically opening the flood gate and letting it come out rather than pushing them away, which is what you do when you say, 'All right. You need to tell me what you know now.'
You see that again and again in difficult conversations.
So, you talk to addiction therapists and they'll say: This is what we learned in the last few decades of addiction therapy. For a long time, we thought the answer was, you sit down with the addict and you say, 'You have a really, really serious problem, and you need to confront it. You're damaging your life. You're damaging the life of the people around you, the people that you love,' and they'll say, 'No, I don't have a problem. No, I don't. It's absolutely fine. I've got this under control, okay? I just need to make a few adjustments.'
And, they just get into this back-and-forth argument. Because, the moment somebody has told, 'You've got a serious problem. You need to stop drinking or taking drugs'--the moment the big part of their brain which hates being dominated becomes more vocal in their internal dialogue and says, 'Hey. No. It's fine. You're not going to tell me what to do. I like drinking. It's a big part of my life.'
So, what the addiction therapists realized, and what they are now much more likely to practice is: You go in there and you say, 'You tell me what's going on. I'm interested. I want to know why you're here--because, clearly, you wouldn't be unless there's some sort of issue in your life.' And then they listen.
Now, it doesn't mean that they don't have a point of view in the conversation, right? They can still kind of guide the addict towards where they want them to go. But, they make every effort they can, not to be perceived as domineering or even subtly domineering. They're not trying to persuade them by saying, 'Look. I'm here for you and I'm interested in you, and I want to help you kind of work out the best way.'
And then when the addict works[?] it out for themselves, they're much more likely to follow through and check on change. They're much more motivated.
Now, I just think you can apply that principle in so many different ways to your own life. Including, yeah, your conversations with children.
In fact, the main interrogation expert I talk to Laurence Alison--he trains counter-terrorist police from around the world--he said: One of the first things I say to them is, 'Listen: If you can deal with teenagers well, you can deal with terrorists. It's the same basic principle.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, that's the challenge. Teenagers are challenging.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. Not that it's easy. It's hard. It's really hard.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think there's something incredibly deep there, which is: If you have an addiction and someone says to you, 'This is ruining your life,' the person knows it, often, right? I know many things that I do that aren't good for me, that I wish I didn't do. When you tell me that, my first reaction isn't, 'Oh, I didn't realize that.' My first reaction is, 'You think I'm a loser.'
And so, it's not just dominance: it's the respect issue. And I think that emotional subcurrent of respect versus contempt. I'm going to use a really risky metaphor, Ian--I hope it works for you--which is baseball. Now, if baseball doesn't work for you, I suspect cricket might. Am I--
Ian Leslie: Yeah, that would be better, but keep going with baseball. I can manage.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, I apologize for people who don't have either baseball or cricket. But, in baseball, one of the most horrible things that every coach says--and every parent, and I said it many times--is, 'Keep your eye on the ball'--if you're batting. It's a hard thing. You've got to hit a fast-moving object with a little stick, and it's challenging. So, obviously, keep your eye on the ball, right?
One reaction to that advice is, 'Well, of course.'
But I think what coaches and parents--and this is where EconTalk is really practical, by the way, so if you're a Little League coach or parent, I'm going to give you some really powerful, useful advice here--to swing a baseball bat with power, you have to have your body go counterclockwise. You're basically turning--if you're a right-handed batter, you're turning your body counterclockwise to swing the bat as the ball comes forward.
The challenge is: You have to move your head clockwise as the ball comes in, because as the ball is coming toward you and comes to the area of the hitting zone, you have to start to turn your head to follow it. And to do that, your head starts--if you're a right-handed batter--your head turns clockwise.
So, you're doing something that is, actually, something like patting your stomach and rubbing your head, or vice-versa. And, that's what you have to practice. Not 'keeping your eye on the ball', but practice the art of keeping your eye on the ball means doing two things that actually are somewhat unnatural.
I think the discussion has that character. Like you said, someone is saying something, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, I can answer that. I have an answer to that. I have an answer to that,' and your brain is working away, 'I can do that.' There's this other part of your brain, which you have to engage at the same time. Not intuitive, because that first part is aggressive. That first part is, 'I'm going against you. I'm bumping back. You're pushing something to me, I'm pushing back.' But I also have to invite you in at the same time I'm pushing back.
So, my brain says, 'I disagree. I disagree. Here's my argument. What's my best argument? Oh, yeah, I'll find it,' but at the same time I have to be saying, 'I'm listening. I'm taking it in.'
And I think that art of doing both at the same time--and maybe you can't do both, maybe it's not like baseball or maybe it's just as hard as hitting a baseball. But I think that's the challenge.
I think I've told the story here: Once I had a family member insult me. And, I had written an essay that morning about seeing yourself as part of an ensemble rather than as the star of the show. And so, I really wanted to be the star of the show when I was insulted. I wanted to push back and defend myself. But I'd written that essay, and it was haunting me. I said, instead: 'Maybe this person needs me to be somebody else other than the adversary.'
And, instead of being adversarial, I just took it. And it hurt. And it was one of the most extraordinary emotional experiences I've ever had, because, instead of going into that very natural adversarial mode, I could see myself as giving what the other person needed. Which was an ear. He wanted me to accept that criticism. And I realized, 'You know, it's probably a fair criticism.' I have a lot of answers; but I'm not going to say them. And I just took it.
And, I think that mixture of adversarial pushback versus embracing the viewpoint and status or stage of the other person as a fellow human being is really what you need to try to foster as a conversationalist.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. I think that's beautifully put. And I think it is about--thinking about the content, the thing that we are arguing about, but at the same time acknowledging the relationship is also important. In fact, it's probably more important. And that sometimes you have to kind of compromise on the first in order that the second is repaired or isn't harmed. But then, once that relationship level is settled, then you're going to have better disagreements and better arguments. That's the thing.
And, I often think about--the book is not about persuasion, right? But, obviously, it overlaps with it. And there's often--we often have this kind of fantasy, a bit like an old-fashioned addiction therapist who thinks: If I tell this person that they've got a serious problem, they're going to go, 'Oh, yes, you're right. What have I been thinking?' We have this fantasy that we'll say, 'Look. Climate change is real. Here's the evidence,' and the other person is going to go, 'Oh, my God! Wow!'
Russ Roberts: 'What was I thinking?'
Ian Leslie: Yeah. 'I've been an idiot all my life.' This is not going to happen.
Russ Roberts: or vice-versa, Ian. Right?
Ian Leslie: or vice-versa, right. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I could show you that some of the things that are claimed by climate-change folks maybe are true. In which case, but strangely enough, they don't go, 'What if I've been living a lie for the last 10 years?'
Ian Leslie: No. Exactly. Because it becomes an attack on their identity, right? or on your identity.
Russ Roberts: I interrupted that because you've picked a couple of examples that only looked at one side, but the book is quite even-handed. I just want to say that out of respect that in the book, and in particular, when you talk about the Branch Davidians versus the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] in the Waco tragedy, the Branch Davidians come off better than the FBI, which I thought was quite impressive.
Ian Leslie: Yeah. I mean, the thing about--kind of, the--I guess inadvertant[?] comments, liberal or kind of analytical or educated mindset--I'm merging a few different things together there, but what Joe Henrich calls the WEIRD [Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic] mindset--a Western educated industrialized rich Democratic-is we have a kind of double jeopardy. Because, not only do we have our own kind of way of thinking--analytical and kind of logical--we also think it's the only way thinking about this. So, when and if we meet somebody who doesn't think like that, we just think, 'Och, you're just being idiotic, or rational, or informational,' and so on.
And so, and actually, when you look at the way that--politically, liberals versus conservatives--liberals are even worse understanding how conservatives think than vice-versa, because of their content to be even more analytical, even more low-context in the way they think about things.
So, yes. I think just--we are now used to the idea that other cultures think differently. We're not quite used to the idea that we have a culture of our own. We're not just 'normal,' whoever we are. We're ordinary in a way, and we need to reflect on that as we're engaging with somebody else.
Russ Roberts: I think that's perfectly true in marriage or friendship, where inevitably--I mean, there are certain male/female stereotypes, which we won't list here, but it doesn't really matter. The really important point is whether you're a male, female or something else, you bring your own stuff--your own baggage, your own history--to the conversation. And I'm going to segue into something I wanted to make sure we talk about, which is that, especially where I did this low-context, high-context. We had Dana Gioia on here, and he talked really eloquently--the poet--about the private language into one of his poems that married couples have. And, married couples, they can get by in semi-silence for a very long time because they don't need much expansion of the words. They can tweet back and forth to each other quite effectively because they have a lifetime of practice. That's the good side.
The bad side is: Well, actually, if anybody changes, the other person often has zero awareness of it. Because, they've filled in the script for years. They know what the other person is going to say, they know what they think, and they forget the possibility that you can change.
And I think that that's true friendship, it's true marriage, obviously. It's true in work as well--that some of these high context situations where so much communication takes place without explicit words is actually has this little challenge on the side that sometimes you're debating, arguing with somebody who doesn't exist. You're arguing with the person, the spouse of yours that you've imagined for the last five years, who is not the same.
Ian Leslie: Absolutely. There's[?] this just really interesting line of research into empathetic mind reading, how well do couples understand each other--how well can they read each other's minds and sort of identify what the other is thinking and feeling. And, one of the fascinating things about it is that long-term couples tend to get a little worse at reading each other's minds as time goes on. So, they improve steeply over the opening months and years of the relationship, until they perform this incredible mind-meld that you see with couples, where you're just finishing each other's sentences. You know that when somebody is in a bad mood it's because they've just encountered somebody that they don't like or they haven't had breakfast. You can kind of read them. You've got a very good mental model of how they operate.
But then what happens is, over time, because that model worked so well, the other person is changing over time, right? As you say, you don't become a completely static person at the age of 25 or even 35. You're having different experiences and different thoughts as you go, but because your partner had that model of how you think and he or she is relying on that model, she doesn't notice or he doesn't notice that you're changing; and the model doesn't get updated until something goes badly wrong. And suddenly you realize, 'Actually, this person is not the person that they were 10-15 years ago. They've evolved and I haven't kept up with them.'
So, this is another role for argument and disagreement because there's a lot of evidence that couples who are quite quick to get into arguments--not necessarily major ones, but little ones--are actually happier and more fulfilled and more likely to stay together than couples who never rise to argument or are always calm and talk everything through. I hate those couples.
Russ Roberts: That's abnormal.
Ian Leslie: And, I thought this is interesting because we tend to assume the opposite--that the couples who argue a lot are going to be unhappy. But actually, the ones who argue, they're getting new information. They're updating in almost in a Bayesian sense their model of the other person, because in an argument, as I was saying earlier, you suddenly find out, 'Oh, she really cares about this in a way that I hadn't worked out,' or 'Oh, that's what he really thinks. Oh, right. Okay.'
And so, you're getting these updates to your model. You're blowing away the stereotype that you formed of your partner. And therefore, you're keeping the relationship strong. A relationship is like an organism: It needs to evolve and change; and conflict is a big driver of that change.
Russ Roberts: What did you learn from this book other than what you wrote in it? So, you wrote a lot of--there's some really wonderful stories. We didn't get to all of them. I'm just going to mention it because it's been mentioned before on the program: You talk about how the Wright brother argued all the time, but it helped them discover some extraordinarily practical things that otherwise, they were always--trial and error was a huge part of what they were doing. Obviously, there was no science of flight. They were inventing it essentially in real space.
So, you tell some great stories. You give some good practical advice. You provoked my thinking. I'm curious what happened to you. You spend a lot of time talking--
Russ Roberts: Go ahead.
Ian Leslie: I'm going to say I became more prepared to have direct and open disagreements with people. And by 'more prepared' I mean not just more willing, but literally more prepared in that I'm more prepared to have them because I've given some thought to how to make this go well. Part of the reason I wrote the book is that I'm not a very conflict--I don't really like it. I'm probably pretty conflict-averse even by most people's standards.
And so, I [?] as we've been[?] talking about, all the benefits of it. So, I don't want to miss out on those. And I've realized that, actually, it's always going to be--not always, but usually--going to be quite uncomfortable, but if you give some thought to how to approach it, and actually if you practice it more, the more comfortable you get with it.
I mean, in a small way, my marriage has been changed by this, because I'm more likely to have arguments out with my wife now, right? We don't really have necessarily major--we're not tearing strips of each other. But, we'll have kind of fairly heated disagreements about things, and we'll do it in front of the children in a way that I perhaps wouldn't have done--was not particularly happy about doing--before, because I want them to see that it's okay. You can have a disagreement with someone you love and you still love them, instead of saying to my wife, 'Let's talk about this in another room,' as if it's something shameful that we're about to have a conflict of opinion on a subject to do with the family.
And so, the children grow up in a culture where it's okay to have open disagreement. In fact, that's part of what makes like interesting and enjoyable. I mean, they've taken that lesson a little bit too much to heart for my comfort. They talk back to me just about everything. But that's fine. That's the way I wanted it.
Russ Roberts: May I ask where you're from originally?
Ian Leslie: I'm from London. I've lived in London all my life, apart from a few years in New York.
Russ Roberts: So, my stereotype, whether it's accurate or not, is that people from England tend to be very, very high context. They tend to keep their deepest feelings under wraps if they are confrontational or are going to lead to confrontation. You know, the story I like--I'm sure it's true; I'm sure it's happened a thousand times--the American who goes to London for a business presentation and is told afterward by the team from England, 'Oh, that was fine' but that means awful--is what I've heard. I don't know if that's true. Never made a business presentation in London. But I think if you don't know that, obviously, and the example I've used many times on the program is asking my Russian friend how are you and he says, 'Fine,' like all Americans because Americans don't like to talk about how they feel in that setting. It's just a conversational gambit. It doesn't mean, 'How are you?' It means, 'I'm starting talking now.'
I don't know if that's fair. I'm challenging you a little bit. Do you think it's true that in the culture you were raised in that arguing was considered gauche? Certainly, in certain cultures, it is gauche; and in other cultures, it's celebrated. Do you feel that was true of the way you were raised?
Ian Leslie: Yeah, to a certain extent, yeah. I mean, I think that the kind of high-context English culture of ambiguity as a very refined kind of elaborate civility is somewhat on the decline--right?--for better or for worse. So, there are nice things about that and there's not nice things about that. But, I think probably compared to some other cultures, there's probably less openness to conflict and disagreement.
I mean, so, I spoke to--I mention this in the book just briefly--but I spoke to a French journalist. I lived in Paris, actually, for a couple of months when I was writing the book. And we were talking about the differences between French and English culture. And I said, 'We have this thing. I'm sure you have it, too, where you don't discuss religion or politics at the dinner table.' And she was like, 'What?! This is crazy.' She said, 'For us, it's the whole point. You sit around, you sit at the table; there's a couple of minutes of nice, polite chitchat; and everybody is waiting for somebody to throw a grenade into the conversation: Let's talk about this [foreign language 01:05:44].' 'Oh, you think the [foreign language 01:05:45] is a good thing, do you?' And then we get into it. She said, 'That's the whole point of sitting down for luncheon, where I'm from.'
And so, you know, they have a culture of argument and positive argument.
And, as I've been saying: we're talking about this in national terms, regional terms because it's easy to get your head around. But you can create the culture you want, right? There's obviously lots of different cultures inside every country and inside an organization that they will have--each organization will have its own culture of disagreement and argument. And I kind of make the case that you need to be creating a culture of disagreement, where disagreement is not seen as a disruptive behavior or a personal slight, but it's actually seen as a positive contribution to the company, and as a sign of respect to your colleagues.
Russ Roberts: In terms of leadership--we can close on this--in terms of leadership, creating that culture of trust is very challenging, I think. I used to be involved with the business community of St. Louis in Missouri because I was in the Business School at Washington University. And, there were certain organizations that were well-known as being places where people argued vehemently with each other, and it was encouraged and accepted, and nobody judged it. And there were others that were much more straight-laced, buttoned up, whatever you want to call it.
And, I think the ideal is to create a culture of trust where people know they won't get fired if they say something that other people disagree with. But I think it's not so straightforward. It's an art, obviously, of leadership.
Ian Leslie: Well, I think almost more than that. I almost think that's not--one should aim higher than that and try and create a culture where not sharing your opinion--if you have an informed opinion on a topic--is a bad thing. That's what you get into trouble with.
If you come along and say, 'Well, at the time I thought this, but I didn't say so,' that's a problem.
And, the people who disagree openly and respectfully, but openly and directly are rewarded for it, including and especially when they do it to their boss. Because, that's the only way to unlock all these immense cognitive collective benefits of disagreement.
You know, I'll tell you the company that's really good at this: I should have mentioned them in the book because, and he read his book, Reed Hastings's book, No Rules Rules. He talks about the Netflix culture that he's created then. It puts a great emphasis on disagreement. And people who joined Netflix are often surprised and uncomfortable at first when they see somebody relatively junior disagreeing with Reed Hastings or whoever is the most senior person in the room. And, they have a kind of big argument.
And, if you're a newcomer, you think, 'Whoa, that didn't go well.' But then they see the boss kind of go around and congratulate that person at the end and say, 'Look, I should--.' Whether or not they agreed with them, at the end of the conversation is irrelevant: they're like, 'Congratulations. You did a great job of disagreeing with me there and making me think through my premises.'
So, I think that is the best insurance against high number of bad decisions. You know. I think if you've got people in the room who are putting forward different points of view and really giving your view, especially if you're a leader, a bit of a battering, it's going to make your--whether or not you stick to your decision or not or you change your mind, it's going to make where you end up stronger.
And I think you can model it, too. You can have arguments, a bit like me and my wife talking in front of the kids. You can do it with your peers in the room. You can say, 'Look,' you can show, you can model kind of good positive disagreement in front of your more junior employees.
Russ Roberts: We had David Epstein on the program talking about his book--I think it was the book Range. And in there, I think I've got this right, he talks about the Challenger tragedy and the space shuttle launch. And, NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] had a motto, 'In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.' It's literally a banner on the wall, I'm told, I've read.
So, the engineers who were worried about the O-rings and the temperature on the day of the Challenger launch didn't have any data because they had never launched on a such a cold day. They'd never directly tested it. But they were very uneasy about it. And when they raised the issue, the NASA people really were eager to launch because if they didn't launch that day, it was going to called for a few days. It was going to put off for a certain amount of time. And then they'd already brought the rocket out of the warehouse and it meant it would be on the pad too long, and they'd have to take it back. And it was just really unpleasant and would be viewed badly, obviously, even just because it wouldn't get the job done.
And the engineers who understood that there was a risk here, I think, have suffered since then because--and I've read some of the accounts to this. They knew there was something wrong. They spoke up. So, it wasn't like they stayed silent.
But it comes back to our earlier discussion. They weren't vehement enough, and they, of course, have tragic regrets about it, to some extent.
That--you know, it caused a lot of soul-searching at NASA, obviously.
And, of course, the irony is it was the profit-oriented company that was trying to stop the launch, not the government so-called public-spirited people.
And that forced NASA to examine their culture disagreement and the importance of disagreement.
And I think this lesson of knowledge being spread out in individual people and that to get it used, we have to be able to trust one another to share it without punishment, without fear of being held as contemptible, I think is just--it's the definition of, I think, a healthy organization. And a healthy family.
Ian Leslie: Agreed. And, yeah. As you say: The responsibility there is not just with the individual engineers to be more vehement. It's with the leadership to say, 'It's okay. If you really strongly believe something, yeah, stand up and, you know, shout if you need to do.' Lives are at stake, right? Couldn't be more important.
So, and then sometimes, yeah, you just get corporate cultures where any expression of real passion or emotion is sort of slightly frowned upon and everybody's got to be very calm and rational and logical. That actually means you're reducing the amount of information you're getting from people. Because, the way you talk, your tone, gives information about what's going on as much as what you're saying.
So, creating room for kind of emotional range and tonal variety in conversations is as important as just the content of the information that we're all exchanging.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Ian Leslie whose book is Conflicted. Ian, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Ian Leslie: Thank you so much, Russ. Really enjoyed it.