How to debate someone with opposing views

How to debate someone with opposing views

This is an interview and is a bit longer.

Amanpour and Company

In our world of tribalism and echo chambers, is it possible to unlearn firmly held beliefs and opinions? Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist who explores how to navigate discussions with people who hold opposing views. Grant’s latest book is called “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.” He speaks with Walter Isaacson about possible strategies for establishing common ground. Originally aired on February 2, 2021.

17 min

Interviewer [Walter Isaacson]

Good leaders not just smartest, able to pivot and to get people to re-think. How does one do that?

 What doesn’t work! =

  • become preachers and talk about why we’re right
  • or become prosecutors and tell them why they are wrong – and that makes them defensive

Instead: show a little bit of :

  • humility and
  • curiosity
  • I’d love to hear what your concerns are
  • Whether you have any reasons [here: to consider a vaccine]
    • See it as a threat to their freedom
    • Reframe it as the source of their freedom

    • What works better than keeping oneself safe is keeping others safe?!
    • We all have a feeling of invulnerability, but
    • “doing it for Grandma” is one of the more effective arguments we have.

    • What would lead you to say “maybe”?

    • Red Sox vs Yankees fans?
      • Humanizing the other side is totally ineffective
      • Giving them a common identity as baseball fans -> “yeah? But…!”
      • What did work was to get them to relativize their own allegiance -> who would you root for if you had been born in a different city”
      • As they thought about that, they felt less animosity toward the other side

= “counter-factual thinking” -> realize:

  • The group that someone belongs to doesn’t actually tell you everything about who they are.

Recently extended this to “gun rights” and “gun control” advocates

Advice for debating someone with polar opposite views [especially if they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories] ?

Problem is, we see it as a debate, where we’re supposed to argue with them.

Step 1:

Start with areas of agreement

Figure out whether there is any consensus between your views

e.g. with guns – universal background checks

Step 2:

If you are dealing with conspiracy theories -> ask more questions, vs. giving them answers

e.g. “how would that work?” “can you explain to me, how … ?”

– government is completely incompetent.

– but manages to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes?

-> he began thinking creatively

Step 3:

And then concede:

  • Some conspiracies are real!
    • For a while Watergate was thought of that way
    • It turned out to have been real

How shall we know which conspiracies we should take seriously and which not?

Lesson from the research:

Why- questions -> just gives them a long series of reasons to stay where they are

How- questions [how would this work?] ->

  • makes them realize that there are gaps in their knowledge
    • helps them see the complexity of the issue
  • which makes them a little bit less polarized

Interviewer changes to question of total amount of polarization in society & social media

[encourages the opposite – engage and fight and preach and prosecute]

Change approach

  • from arguments that they themselves would find convincing
    • to understanding what somebody else might find appealing
    • BLM – anti-racism
      • Often = liberal values: “equality” or “justice”
      • For use with conservatives: “freedom” – we believe that everybody deserves freedom
        • Freedom from oppression
        • Freedom of opportunity

Thinking about what are the values that might be relevant to the other side or cross-cutting

-> you don’t have to change the other person’s values
     you can appeal to values they already hold

Next question: to what extent is our somewhat lax response to Covid caused by leaders’ inability to re-think, to pivot?

  • Frustrating to watch
    • comfort of conviction over
    • Discomfort of doubt
  • He uses New Zealand’s PM as example of taking harsh measures as long as unsure and then move back out
    • What you don’t know can even be a source / sign of it of confidence – unsure, but we can get through this together
    • Creating leaders who can pivot?
      • Have a challenge network surrounding them
        • Need to be willing to experiment
        • Recognize that their opinions are actually hypotheses
        • Need to be tested
          • Run experiments
          • Gather data
          • See whether policy is effective

    • How should Biden go forward?
      • Whether Biden should respect people who told lies?
      • Difference between
        • “owed” respect [as human being]and
        • “earned” respect [I don’t have to listen to all your arguments, if I don’t think they are credible]
      • Biden:
        • Offer everyone owed respect and
        • Here’s what you can do to earn  my respect:
          • If you are willing to put the country above your party
          • If you are willing to put your principles above your politics
          • If you are willing to put truth above tribe
          • Then that’s how you’ll earn my respect and you’ll end up with more of my support that way

? How do you prevent becoming paralyzed when you are always questioning your own beliefs?

  • People experience that a lot:
    • If I’m willing to be intellectually humble
    • If I’m willing to question and doubt
    • I might never act!
    • Attitude of wisdom:
      • I’m going to act on the best information I have
      • While continually questioning what I know
    •  E.g. Jeff Bezos (Amazon)
      • If the decision is highly consequential and irreversible, I will wait as long as I can until I am sure that I have the best information
      • But if the stakes are lower and I can change my mind, then I’m going to act as quickly as I can and treat it as a gamble. And the, whatever I learn going forward, I have lots of time to re-think that decision
    • Draw the two-by-two and ask yourself:
      • How important is this decision?
      • How irreversible is it?

That’s a good guide for figuring out:

  • Should I be paralyzed for a little while?
    • Or should I just act more quickly?


People like Malcolm Gladwell and others have done experiments where they talk about the importance of going with your intuition, thinking with it, as opposed to re-thinking things. How would you modify that theory?

Test your intuition vs trust your intuition

When I think about intuition, I think about it as sub-conscious pattern recognition

Question is: whether the patterns you have recognized in the past are relevant to the situation you’re in.

So ask yourself: is my experience in whatever domain going to apply to the current circumstances?

If the answer is yes, then by all means follow your gut; but I want to know, where that gut is coming from and whether it is leading you in the right direction.


Free speech?

Hope marketplace of ideas is efficient

There are certainly steps we can take to make it more efficient.

Start by separating freedom of speech from “cancel-culture”.

  • Not “cancel” a person, because we disagree with their views
    • But also not shield them from criticism if they express views that are hateful or inconsistent with the best available facts and evidence.
    • There is not a right to be able to say whatever you want, even if it hurts people!
    • There is a right to holding an opinion and, if that opinion is something that people find objectionable or incorrect, they should be able to correct it.
    • Solution is not to cry “cancel culture” anytime somebody disagrees with you. Disagreement is how the marketplace of ideas works.
    • We need to hear a variety of perspectives, as long as those perspectives are grounded in a good faith attempt to move a conversation forward, as opposed to trolling or as opposed to trying to try and sow some kind of discord.
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