Karen McKim —
Judging by the conversations I read on social media, I’m not the only human who has an impulse, when I read a comment containing four true statements and one false, to respond only to the false one.
We’ll be more successful in our political conversations if we let an occasional ignorant or illogical statement go free.
Example: Suppose you support funding for contraception services. You think your strongest arguments are the basic dignity of human choice; the morality of caring for our fellow citizens; reducing the demand for abortion; and strengthening our economy by enabling people to manage the size of their families.
Now, imagine you’re discussing that topic with someone who is making a ‘not-my-brother’s-keeper’ argument for individual responsibility. He says that former attorney general Eric Holder owns abortion clinics.
You doubt that’s true. You might even know the facts behind that rumor.
But notice that whether it’s true or false, it has nothing to do with the case you want to make. If Holder was murdering a dozen infants daily with his own hands, it wouldn’t affect the validity of a single one of your arguments.
So let it pass. Stay focused. Resolve to set the record straight only after you’ve stated the facts that are important to you. If your conversation partner insists, say something that neither confirms nor corrects the allegation. Instead, acknowledge it and dismiss it—perhaps saying something like “Regardless of who owns the abortion clinics, contraception helps women stay out of them.”
Leaving some misstatements uncorrected has both logical and emotional benefits for the conversation.
A logical argument is a series of statements (premises) that leads to a conclusion. In the normal turn-taking of casual conversation, you cannot present all your premises in a single speech. But you do need to keep the conversation on track until you’ve put them on the table. When you veer away from your own argument to correct another’s misstatements, you interrupt yourself. By resisting that impulse, you will be better able to maintain control of the conversation.
Emotional control is just as important. In any lively conversation, participants will occasionally think, “Well, that’s idiotic,” but skilled conversationalists never let that disdain show.
You know how it feels to be corrected, so heed your natural empathy. For one thing, it’s embarrassing. No one likes to be wrong, and we dislike having that pointed out. For another, it upsets the relative status of the participants. The person doing the correcting takes a superior role; the person being corrected feels forced into an inferior role.
So egos kick in. Participants stop trying to discuss a civic issue and start trying to save face and gain the upper hand. The conversation becomes a competition. Logical points give way to zingers.
The other person is more likely to be receptive to your ideas if you maintain the behavior of a respectful peer. ‘Respectful’ means demonstrating the emotional maturity to avoid embarrassing the other. ‘Peer’ means not taking the role of intellectual superior.
And consider this: If you eagerly correct every misstatement the other person makes, your words–including the corrections–are not going to carry any weight with them anyway. Save your breath.
Finally, as with almost every rule of skillful conversation, think through what you will do when the situation is reversed. The next time someone corrects one of your statements, be prepared to resist switching into ego-defense mode. If the challenged fact is not necessary to your logical argument, let it go. If it is, try to find a graceful way to support the fact without triggering an ego-defense response from your conversation partner.
Originally published on “Talking Politics: Conversation skills for self-governing people,” April 15, 2019.