TED Conversations

Carter Harkins

Chief Storyteller, Harkins Creative

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Is there an indispensable person or group in your life with whom you frequently disagree? How has this made you a better person?

The culture wars rage on every day in the news and in online comment threads. We hurl invective and criticism without regard for the fact that most of this kind of "discourse" actually only causes each of us to become further entrenched in our ideas and beliefs. At worst it can push us into even more extreme positions, believing that the emotion we feel justifies our deeper schisms.

Maybe you have been lucky enough to have a person or group who has taught you the value of disagreement in the presence of real engagement and commitment to understanding. If so, I hope you'll share how this kind of interaction has strengthened, sharpened and equipped you to argue and disagree in world-changing ways, in ways that foster community and overcome ignorance (your own, as well as the other's).

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    Aug 14 2012: For me there are several here on TED who enthrall me with their opposite opinions Edward, Robert and a young man named David to name a few. I seldom know when or if they ever agree with me but they are often the reason i come back so often. i thrill at their every entry for it is in this 'otherness" that i hope for answers to all those things that perplex me. I love to argue with them in the hopes that they know something I do not and can delight me with something unconsidered.
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      Aug 15 2012: Debra, I love how you use the word "argue" in your comment. I don't sense any hostility in it. It is an intellectual exercise with the sole purpose of discovery and enlightenment. It doesn't cheapen or demean the other, it esteems them. Your humility and willingness to learn from someone with whom you disagree is such a breath of fresh air!

      This is what I have experienced myself. It's the kind of argument that seeks to liberate the best in someone else, not beat them up with my "rightness". It hopes for a mutual ground, a place of reconciliation, and if that's not possible, then a mutual respect and admiration. It is possible to share heated words and passionate opinions with someone who argues this way, because you know that throughout the exchange what matters most is the person, not the point.
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      Aug 15 2012: That does it .... from now on I agree with everything you say. So there.

      "T" Bob
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        Aug 15 2012: Now that is hillarious! But will that cheque bounce?
  • Aug 15 2012: A thought...
    I learned something from an older sikh gentleman a few years ago. He taught me that the best name for those people who frequently frustrate and confound us is "teacher".

    The thought process being that they are teaching us patience, understanding, calm, and empathy... I very much like this concept.

    Regards,
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    Aug 16 2012: Great Qs, Carter.

    There are many with whom I disagree. All, in different ways, make me a better person.

    Two young men come to mind, as I've been reflecting on an encounter I had with them recently. Which gave me bracing lessons in a subject I claim some "expertise" in: civil discourse. What's powerful is how they demonstrated my own theories about the impact of reflected reactivity in social settings.

    Here's what happened:
    We were playing basketball at adjacent nets. They with a large group of teen boys, me alone, save for two preschoolers who were moving between my net and a shorter one nearby, where other little ones were also playing.

    When the testosterone-fueled pack began blasting through the preschoolers, my impulse to protect the little kids triggered an angry exchange between me and the boys. After calmly urging them to be careful a couple of times, I ended up literately coming after the teens, who'd continued to ignore me. Instead of moving away, they'd become more aggressive. And, so did I.

    So, there I was screaming as I sprinted at them--physically protecting the little kids by blocking the big ones from them. The teens got the message, but as they scurried to a different court, they were laughing. Presumably at my reaction. Which didn't help cool me down.

    Now I was chasing them. A wise young man who hadn't seen the earlier display intervened. He'd only seen me swearing and calling the others bullies. His method worked to an extent. I calmed down a bit. But still was too far over the edge to let the aggressors off that easily. And, I also wanted to defend what little dignity I had left.

    Rather than explain my reasons, I turned to the teens, demanding they explain why. They answered: "Because you were worried about the little kids."

    The next day the leader of the bullies shook my hand. Since then we've had great talks about how easy it is for anyone to lose compose. And, how powerful empathy and "social contagions" can be.

    Andrea
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      Aug 16 2012: For those of us who work on civil discourse, any interaction, I find, provides such learning opportunities. Yours is a great story.
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        Aug 18 2012: I completely agree. Those who not have the opportunity of being contradicted, they have less chances for learning to live.
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    Aug 14 2012: Thanks, Fritzie, I appreciate the prompt. Unfortunately, I was once pretty intolerant of others outside the tribe. I was much younger then, and full of zeal and enthusiasm for a cause I barely understood, but which defined me completely. I was in. "They" were out.

    But I had one person in my life who refused to let me get away with the arrogance and certainty I displayed. He disarmed me like no one else could. And even though I knew this person was wrong in their beliefs (not like me; therefore not worthy of my attention), I continued to engage, because somehow it felt safe with this person. I could push them, and they let me. They could push back, and I let them.

    At first I told myself it was good to have practice sharpening my arguments against an opponent. But slowly, this opponent began to get in my head. I even called him a friend, sometimes. I never admitted he was right when we would argue for hours, but if I was honest, I would have to admit that he had a valid perspective I did not possess.

    I came to rely on this perspective. Over the years world events would loom, and it was him I sought out first. I began to see how this person with strange ideas would often have insights that proved to be correct long before anyone else I knew. I trusted his perspective, even though I still clung to my own beliefs on most matters.

    Eventually, I grew up, and in the process, let go of a lot of the intellectual pride and stubbornness that characterized me earlier. Now, when we speak, this friend and I often begin to see each other's perspectives even before the other has put it into words for us. And for the first time, I realize that I have had an influence on him as well. We trust each other. We temper each other and strengthen each other's ability to go past the 5 second sound bites and look for the real meat of the thing. We still disagree. But we always keep civility and respect at the front of the relationship. I am a better human being for him in my life.
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      Aug 14 2012: It is a wonderful story. It reminds me of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a journey of self discovery, personal growth by way of a wise intervener, and returning with new understandings to tell the tale.
      There are many for whom I wish a similar voyage of discovery while they are young enough to have decades to use their wisdom for good.
  • Aug 22 2012: My parents divorced at a young age forced me to see my dad as a "bad guy". So naturally I disagree with him often. My dad regained my respect by doing one thing that I find more effective than disagreeing or arguing a potential point and that is this:

    Play dumb. My Dad knew that as a young man I would not listen to him as a voice of reason no matter how right he was, I would simply try to fix him due to my misconception of his wrongful ways. But he wouldn't take offense! He simply took it and listened to my view (which wasn't always wrong, but mostly). Then he would act as if I had given him some grand revelation and add to it his views (this is when I finally learned from him).

    He gained my respect and eventually I would go to him for advice. It wasn't until I was preparing for college that he finally let on that he knew more than I did. I learned then that my dad is one of the most brilliant man I've ever met.

    Since then I have used this tactic in my life. I would ask questions I already knew answers to and learned more than I often expected. I would allow my desire for credibility and respect slide for a moment and gained respect for my peer instead. Then when I would answer or offer a comment later it came with added wisdom and helped with the situation as well.

    I would suggest a teacher-student discussion is always better than an opponent-opponent discussion. A teacher-student provides an environment of learning, while the other creates a competitive battle with often two losers. The hardest part is being okay with becoming the student of a discussion, rather than the victor of an argument.
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      Aug 24 2012: Jeff, that's keen insight. How often I wish I had remembered that the other person in an argument is the person from whom I stand to learn something very important, if I just humble myself and really listen... And then perhaps by showing that level of respect, I may receive it in return when asking questions and challenging their viewpoints. It may be that they aren't capable of that level of reciprocal respect, but at least I will have walked away having learned something I can take with me, whatever that may be.
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    Aug 19 2012: Yes, my uncle and I disagree very much on almost everything :D But he loves me, and I love him.

    What I've learned from this, is to listen to an opposing view without trying to convince them to change their minds, because it's useless with some people. And in the process I've learned to be calmer and more patient and respectful. and not lose my temper easily, and sometimes just not argue over small things..
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      Aug 22 2012: The aunt that i most frequently debate with was the ONE who was there with me every step of the way (BY PHONE because she had a kidney transplant and was not able to travel) when I had that stroke.
      I think We bond somehow in important ways during these honest exchanges.
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        Aug 22 2012: Yeah, I guess... when despite all these disagreements we still love each other.. I guess that's how you realize that is unconditional love, and it brings the relationship to a different level :)
  • Aug 16 2012: I've been in disagreement with my Mother ever since I could remember. Specifically regarding religion and nothing else. She is very faithfull to her beliefs and I respect that but don't necessarily accept her beliefs. Thus never see eye to eye.

    Because of this i've learnt a great deal each time I had to search for information to present that what I'm saying is factual and how it's affected societies or the world. Otherwise we fine and I'm grateful that an apposing force wrought me my gleanings.
  • Aug 15 2012: Anyone with in-laws knows about civil discourse :)

    I once heard this:
    Behind every great man is a surprised mother in-law.

    Seriously, I think most successful people aren't afraid to put ideas out there and here other's ideas. People who write music together are a good example. The end result is often an example of give and take where the sum is greater than the value of the separate parts.
    Most of the people I respect are people with open minds ready to learn from others. I always learn things from people here on TED.
  • Aug 22 2012: No and yes. Yes because I stand outside and analyze myself and the person or groups thoughts. No emotion, just logic and the truth I have learned over many decades. Not always right, but whoever is?
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    Aug 22 2012: There are always people who frequently disagrees with you for some reasons. Especially when you are a student, just like me. And here is my point; not every single person will agree to you. Everybody has different opinions. Those are just hills that we have to learn how to overcome. We should fight who is right and who is wrong; nobody is right and nobody is wrong. We just have to try hard to understand each other.
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    Aug 18 2012: Yes, continuosly. Once upon a time in my life, I used to feel as direct attacks most of the opinions which were confronted to these of mine. But time has gone by, and I've learned the precious worth of the faced up opinions. When I look at some of my friends, or relatives or fellows, that they not usually have people with strong different opinions, I can feel how these oeople have not had the opportunity to value the other's mindings and to expose these of themselves to other's judgement. Sometimes is a hard way, but In my opinion, it always produces benefits for all.
  • Aug 18 2012: Yeah , that group is called "religious people". I feel like an outcast. I am part of 2% in my country (Romania) that are atheists.
    Am I the crazy one ? The majority is always right so I must be out of my mind. But still , I can not help it , I do not believe in this myth or any other for that matter. Christopher Hitchens said "God is like a north korean dictator" ... sounds about right.
    So no , it did not make me a better person , it made me an outcast , just me and "Wilson".
    • Aug 18 2012: You're not crazy. There is no God (and if there were, he would be making a mockery of the brain that he gave you, which by all accounts, is telling you that there is no evidence of God).

      Take heart. It may not get better, but you are not crazy. There was once a time - this is just one example - when it was legal in the United States to own other people, to own slaves. I know horrible things still exist in the world, but my point is that there had to have been people who thought they were crazy during the times of slavery in the U.S., because they looked around and no one seemed to care enough to do anything about the fact that people owned slaves.
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    Aug 15 2012: yes I have experience people who, no matter what are bent on their view..can not see anything ..this is the way and that is how it is
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    Aug 14 2012: Carter, will you share your story on the subject of your thread, please? Do you pose this question out of experience with tribes that do not embrace or tolerate outside views?
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    Aug 11 2012: There is no person, or standing body of people, I seek out to test my ideas against an expected adversary, but I have been lucky to spend much of my professional life in settings where people think critically about the ideas they are considering rather than simply affirming each others ideas.
    In my experience, this critical and constructive exchange of ideas arises most often when people actually want to solve a problem well and are responsible for decisions.
    It is easier for a person to be stubbornly declarative about views he cannot support when he is engaged in purely social discussion or discussion on which no actions will ride that might come back to bite or haunt him.
    • Aug 19 2012: Fritzie, this sounds like Pat Gilbert's idea, application. It is when we are trying to accomplish something real, that will produce value, that we find out which opinions are sound and relevant.

      I think this might be similar to what Marc Rose means when he writes of intelligence used to accomplish objectives.

      When I was helping to design information systems, it was critical to get people to work together and contribute their differing opinions, then work through them to decide what will actually work.
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        Aug 19 2012: How true, Barry. It would be absurd to design information systems without understanding what information users need and how it is most convenient for them to access it. One can deal in the abstract only for so long if one aims to solve a problem or get something done.
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    Aug 11 2012: The main thing about disagreement is that more often than not is created by a lack of communication. Typically when a person disagrees he shuts up. That is where the conversation ends.

    I do find it useful when debating the other person brings up points that then have to go check.

    I almost always disagree with socialists when I refute all of their arguments they usually just fade away but don't learn anything.
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    Aug 11 2012: I don't think of the word "discourse" as encompassing expression of positions with no aim at mutual sense-making.
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      Aug 14 2012: Yep, one possiblity when others simply shut down is to consider your own approach to them. No one makes an effort when they have no hope of being heard.
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        Aug 15 2012: But some of us try longer than others before giving up:)
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          Aug 15 2012: Some like me are just sort of hopeless cases, Fritzie.
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        Aug 15 2012: What I have experienced as a teacher is that some people who for some time seem absolutely wedded to one view and unwilling to listen do sometimes wake up. I am not saying it is always a good use of resources to work with someone who won't seem to listen. It's a judgment call, certainly.