I’ve not had a job in about a month now. The Jess King campaign was the proudest risk I ever took, and while I learned more than I can distill to a catchy opening line of a blog, our loss left me unemployed. It’s now been about a month since our last paycheck cleared. I’ve spent more time in sweatpants this past 30 days than I did my whole four years of college combined. From updating my LinkedIn profile (potential employers, please contact me) to sending smarmy letters to the editor to LNP, I’ve had nothing but time to kill on introspection, reading the New York Times in incognito mode, and looking through old college papers on my Google drive.
Couple themes I’ve noticed about College Sav after having read a lot of old journal entries. She was very smarmy and self-righteous. Both of those things remain true but have been tempered to some extent. College Sav also really wanted more out of class discussions and was often left unsatisfied by a half-assed back-and-forth that resulted in some version of cultural relativism or, more likely, a few loud members of the GSA all agreeing with themselves while everyone else feigned interest in the same tired Emily Dickinson poem for participation credit.
I thrive in conflict. Not slinging insults, mind you — I’m actually terrible at being mean. No, I love what my dad calls the “mental gymnastics” of forming an opinion, constructing an argument, parrying attacks, and digging deep to find the real root cause of the disagreement. I’ve found that, by and large, whatever issue sparked the discussion is a symptom of a deeper split — which is not only fine but good!
Whenever I engage in an interrogation of hard ideas or lock into cognitive combat, my objective is not to determine a winner and a loser. My intention is to develop understanding — I believe, deep in my heart, that there are really smart, good, virtuous people who don’t think progressivism is the best way forward. I just need to understand how someone of sane mind and sound judgement could, with a different set of underlying beliefs and evidence I haven’t yet seen, came to disagree with me.
This is the vanity in me talking, but even more than I love arguing and debating, I love being right. And in the words of famous 1930s-era economist John Maynard Keynes in his testimony before congress, when I get new information, I adjust my opinion accordingly. I’m not so stubborn as to prefer to stick to what I thought was right in the face of better information. But the only way to prove to me that I could be more right is to fight me on it. I need a showdown.
As I mentioned, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on previous jobs, what I did well, what I did poorly, and what’s important to me in whatever my next stop is. A few jobs ago, I reported to a management that avoided confrontation at all cost, leading to an environment of paranoia and an unwillingness to explore new ideas or field constructive criticism. We opted against expressing suggestions for fear of damaging our management’s ego. They were more concerned with being perceived as powerful than they were about the prosperity of the company and its employees. And it’s hurt them in the long run.
However, on the Jess King campaign, the staff was all so dedicated to a positive outcome on election day that we were willing to go into combat on our competing ideas to find the best one. We wanted to do the right thing more than any one of our individual things. We weren’t scared to debate because we knew it would make our campaign all the stronger. And we were all better team members for the exercise in sharing ideas and choosing the best one. I loved and miss it.
So, I present to you, a couple of tips for healthy conflict. I hope they help.
Before discussions even begin, consider the circumstances under which you’d change your mind. If there’s no version of a discussion that would at least make you reconsider a point of view you hold, abstain from the debate. You’ll violate the very next point, and the discussion will devolve hastily and will likely end in hurt feelings for no good reason.
Stick to the facts and be as specific as you can. There’s never any need to mudsling. When you start to bring someone’s character into the picture, you’ve already lost. Grapple with facts, history, theory — any of that is fair game.
Ask to learn, not to attack. If your real goal is understanding, don’t ask questions with the intention of “trapping” your interlocutor. The object isn’t to win. The object is to gain information. Ask questions when you need clarification and want to delve deeper into the foundations of a belief or idea. Ask for specific examples if you need illustrations. But don’t ask to embarrass. That’s not constructive.
Practice being comfortable with the the phrases “You’re right” and “I hadn’t considered that.” Your confrontations are destined to prove unhealthy and drive wedges between you and your interlocutor if you can’t bring yourself to acknowledge when you’re wrong or are encountering a position or fact for the first time. It’s okay to concede a point now and again. In fact, it’s a sign of strength and wisdom.
Even if you didn’t change your mind, enjoy the experience. Maybe your discussion re enforced what you thought to be true even more. Great! You’ve practiced articulating and defending your point of view respectfully, and hopefully, you understand your friend, coworker or family member a little bit better now.