Ian Leslie on Conflicted
Jun 7 2021

Conflicted-197x300.jpg Author Ian Leslie talks about his book Conflicted with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Leslie argues that, far from being a negative thing, conflict is often the essential ingredient that helps us get to the right answer or best solution. Because some of our best thinking comes in collaboration with others, learning how to disagree civilly when our views conflict is the key to productive conversation in business and in marriage. The conversation includes a surprising defense of confirmation bias.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


krishnan chittur
Jun 7 2021 at 9:38am

After listening to this, it seems obvious that having a confirmation bias AND vigorously arguing for your position IS a good thing – helps clarify your own thoughts and that of the listeners.  It is indeed beautiful to watch (and learn) from the learning process of true debate where there is principled disagreement.

On the issue of “Climate Change” however, I have yet to see a true debate – Indeed the people pushing for “solutions” to “climate change” seem resistant to any arguments against their positions (and sadly, it has become a religion for them).  If I have to pick one factor that has enabled economic (and so personal) growth it is the availability of inexpensive energy (including fuel) – and it is the rich, western countries/groups that seem determined to strangle economic growth.

Enjoyed it! – thanks


Jun 7 2021 at 12:27pm

Yes! I agree with Krishnan! It’s sad, really.

Perhaps the contributing factor in the lack of an objective debate with climate change is the old “follow the money trail”.  Not that long ago, my local paper had a headline on the front page that went something like “University gets multi-million dollar grant to study the effects of climate change on the prairie” (I live in the northern plains).  Interesting. Perhaps there’s a conflict of interest among climate researchers? If there’s no crisis, there’s no grant money.


Caitlin McElrath
Jun 7 2021 at 4:38pm

I really enjoyed this episode and would like to save the book for future reading. I tried looking it up on Amazon and I found 2 with slightly different titles (both of them starting with ‘Conflicted…’). I was wondering which one you read for this podcast, or perhaps they are one in the same.

Russell Roberts
Jun 7 2021 at 8:33pm

Almost certainly one is the American edition and the other is for sale in the UK.

Arvin Simon
Jun 8 2021 at 12:46pm

Russ, as always, thanks for the stimulating guest and conversation!

From my perspective, I see the high-context culture (i.e., traditions, norms, implicit rules, nonverbal signals) as a “knowledge-preserving” media. The upside is consolidation of values, safety, community-building; the downside is tribalism and an echo-chamber of ignorance.

In contrast, the low-context culture (i.e., cosmopolitan, formative, liberal, explicit) as a “knowledge-distributing” media. The upside is exploration, innovation, learning; the downside is alienation, specious propagation of knowledge, and a retreat to high-context environs.

As you mentioned, the internet is generally a good example of low-context but of course, even within certain chat forums there can be a lot of high-context.

I think what is needed in democratic societies are “knowledge-enhancing” media. This would require a culture to balance the cooperativity seen in smaller collectives with the individual freedoms seen in free-markets.

When Leslie speaks of working with the addict, he is using a “motivational interviewing” approach. I believe such approaches try to balance building common ground while emphasizing choice and freedom. I think, as a society, this is the task–and it is sadly being rejected by liberals and conservatives alike.

Jun 11 2021 at 9:08am

I have said this elsewhere, but I always recommend that people listen to the episodes of Econtalk with Robert Frank.  He is a thoughtful and willing to spar with Russ.  They disagree politely and conversationally.  I have learned so much about my own point of view from these disagreements, and I think they are the best lesson in what the fundamentals about economics are, and where there is reasonable disagreement about interpretation of our world

The episode also reminds me of an essay by Mike Munger regarding his experience in higher ed that made him realize,  given the general left bias of the faculty, he has less concern about conservative students getting value from their education.  They are told how wrong they are in their classes and have to challenge themselves to see and repair the holes in their arguments.  The fear is the left leaning students who parrot the professor and are praised for it and are unprepared for the shock of having an intelligent person have a legitimate disagreement with their point of view.  They are unable to understand their own argument and how to defend it.  I think this may be a cause of the problem of our current dialogue.  So many people on one side of a given debate see any dissention as a personal attack on received wisdom as opposed to a thrust that needs a parry in fight about the methodology to obtain a common goal of prosperity.

Jim Cote
Jan 7 2022 at 10:13am

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

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: 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: 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. [More to come, 53:31]

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