Many of us avoid conflict in our relationships with family and friends or at work, but that's probably a mistake, says Ian Leslie, author of a number of nonfiction books on human behaviour. Here, he recommends books that offer insight into how to disagree productively, from evolutionary biology to 17th century Rhode Island, from Nelson Mandela to seemingly intractable conflicts.
We’re looking at books about disagreeing or conflict, which is a great topic because it affects our daily lives and our relationships, as well as politics and society. From your research, what’s the most important thing that I need to know, say, next time I’m arguing with my husband?
First, that it’s probably a good thing that you are arguing and that it’s not the sign of a failing relationship. In fact, quite the opposite: relationships are strengthened by open disagreement. Conflict is a part of any relationship and not just an unfortunate necessity or some sort of byproduct. It’s what keeps it alive and keeps it developing.
In recent years, psychologists studying the science of relationships have been coming around to the view that conflict and argument, even heated arguments, are not something that should be avoided. In fact, the couples who do avoid them, who always talk through their differences very calmly and clearly—which is still the advice that you get a lot of the time—are the ones who tend to be unhappier. Often, the relationship is less likely to survive and certainly be less satisfying to the people in it. The couples who are quick to rise to provocation and get into a passionate disagreement are often the ones who are happiest and have the most enduring relationships.
The basic reason for this, as one psychologist explained it to me, is that conflict is information. In an argument, you are learning about what the other person really thinks, and really feels. That’s why emotion is such an important part of it. The idea that our debates and disagreements should be super rational is not actually very helpful. When you’re in an emotional argument, the veil of politeness or civility, or just passive avoidance, is ripped away and you learn about what your partner really is worrying about, what they think about you—often you find out how much they care about you by how angry they get.
So you use it to kind of update your model of your partner—or whoever it is that you’re arguing with.
So what about in a work context? Because, again, that’s somewhere where we often have tensions and disagreements. What’s the role of conflict there, how should we approach it?
Again, it’s hugely important to have a work culture or a team culture where open disagreement is valued, because if you avoid it, the tensions and the differences, between individuals in particular, do not go away, they just become submerged into passive aggression. The organizational psychologists and management consultants who study teamwork and what makes a productive team culture say that there are different kinds of cultures of conflict, but the only type of conflict that is always a fail and never produces anything worthwhile is passive aggression, in other words, office politics. It just eats away at the relationships in an organization. It’s what happens when you don’t have your disagreements face-to-face.
“The only type of conflict that is always a fail and never produces anything worthwhile is passive aggression”
So, again, you need to have a team that disagree with each other. This is for a couple of reasons. One is that you’re pulling out information and insights from everybody around the table, who might not be motivated to throw it in, otherwise. It’s very easy to sit around a table, the powerful person says something, and everybody nods along, because we all want an easy life. Unless a real argument and difference of opinion is expected or is encouraged, then you’re not actually making full use of everybody’s thinking, and everybody’s information, experience, insights, and so on. Disagreement is a way of thinking. In fact, you might say it is how we think. We’ve got this misleading idea that thinking just happens within the individual brain, but that’s not necessarily the case.
A lot of these things seem counterintuitive. It’s a bit of a shock to hear that passive aggression is useless, because a lot of us regularly resort to it: we try to avoid open conflict, most of the time. Were you surprised by what you found out about disagreements as you researched your book?
Yes, and as somebody who is naturally conflict averse, it did change the way that I conduct my own disagreements. I’m more willing to raise differences openly and directly than I was before. Once you start thinking about it and learning about it, you can prepare yourself. The prospect of disagreeing becomes less stressful and less uncomfortable because you’re ready for it.
When I started writing the book, I thought I was writing a book about how to make conflict go away. I thought, ‘Why do we have to have all these unpleasant arguments that are so horrible? Why can’t we just all get along?’ There are lots of books like that, you know, ‘why can’t we all just be nice to each other?’. When I started researching it, I realized that wasn’t the problem. The problem is that we find it so stressful and unpleasant that we just avoid it. And when we avoid conflict, we just lose out on the huge benefits of it, which are that it makes you smarter and it makes you think better—and is also good for your relationships. It just made me value it a lot more than I did and, therefore, I had to make myself become better at it.
Let’s turn to the books you’re recommending. What brings them all together?
They’re all different angles on how to think about productive disagreement. They’re all helpful in understanding how to make your disagreements creative, insightful and relationship-strengthening rather than relationship-harming. They also show you how it can go wrong. There are dramatic examples of how even the most well-intentioned and intelligent people can get it so wrong.
Let’s start with The Enigma of Reason, which is by some fairly serious cognitive scientists, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. What’s it about?
They address one of the central questions of cognitive psychology, and also of philosophy, I suppose, which is what is reason? What’s the function of reason and rationality? They give, I think, a remarkably fresh, original and revelatory answer. I don’t agree with every aspect of their argument, but they reframe the whole question in quite an exciting way.
Reason is meant to be humanity’s gift, our special faculty, the thing that sets us apart from the animals. Because they come from an evolutionary psychology background, they have this question, which is: Okay, so if we evolved reason in order to help us think—which is the conventional view of what it’s for—then why is it so flawed? Why is this capacity to reason so faulty that if you bought it from a shop, you’d just send it back saying there’s a problem with it? For example, confirmation bias, which means you only look for evidence for things that you already believe in. We do this all the time. Once we are on one side of an argument, we tend to notice things that support our side, and neglect or reason away things from the other side. That distorts our view of reality and makes us worse at thinking. Birds have evolved wings and wings are pretty much perfectly designed for flying. They add a bit of weight, so there’s a bit of a trade-off, but they’re really good at getting off the ground. Why would we have evolved this special capacity that’s so badly flawed? That’s why the book is called The Enigma of Reason: that’s the enigma.
And their answer is that we’ve been looking at reason the wrong way round. We think about it as an attribute of individuals, of individuals in magnificent isolation. If you think about Rodin’s The Thinker, he’s thinking very deeply and using this power of reason to better apprehend the world. They argue that, in fact, we evolved in order to collaborate with others.
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It’s uncontroversial now that the reason humans rule the planet is that we’re better at cooperating and being collaborative than many other species. In their view, reason is a main tool that we use to collaborate. It evolved to help us argue, for each of us to make our case, and contribute our case to the general pool. At that point others can propose a better case and try and knock down our case—whether it’s where to build this camp, or how to hunt down this baboon, or how to build a computer or how to run a country. The function of reason is to throw up lots of hypotheses and then, through a process of Darwinian selection, the strongest arguments will survive, and the weakest ones get rooted out very quickly.
That explains confirmation bias because when you look at it in that perspective, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Confirmation bias is driving you to make the best possible case you can, really digging up all the reasons you can think of to make your case stronger, to give it the best shot within the general pool. And that makes the stock of arguments better. It doesn’t mean that you are better at being right, necessarily—and, as we see, it actually has distorting effects at the individual level—but it does help the group get it right.
Once you think about it like that, you can go, ‘Ah, OK, that’s why conflict and disagreement are so important—because by ourselves we’re pretty flawed reasoners, we’re not very good thinkers.’ We all carry around much less knowledge than we know. We all think we know how a toilet works or how a zip works but when people are asked in studies, they either have no idea, or very little idea, or have got it completely wrong. We’re relying on everybody else’s knowledge all the time. We think collaboratively. And so disagreement and conflict is one of the most important ways in which we donate our small contribution to the pool, raising other people’s intelligence and insight at the same time.
Let’s move on to Knowing Mandela. I always think of Nelson Mandela as an extraordinary human being, a one-off, no one can be like him. So I love that you used him as an example in your book, breaking down his behavior and how he dealt with conflict. I came away thinking, ‘Okay, well, even though I can never be Nelson Mandela, I can pick up a few tips from him.’ Tell me about this book.
This is by a journalist called John Carlin, who was South Africa correspondent for the Independent for a long time, during which Mandela was released from prison and came to power. Carlin got to know Mandela a bit and met him several times. He’s written more than one book about Mandela, but this is a brilliant book because it’s very short and very concise. It seeks to uncover and show you what he was like as a man. It doesn’t give you the full political and historical context of what was going on—Carlin has written about that elsewhere. He really zeroes in on what Mandela was like in the room, what kind of a person he was.
“The point of civility is to enable you to row”
One of the things that he shows you very persuasively is that Mandela was an intuitive genius of a psychologist. He really understood people, how to handle them. He wasn’t Machiavellian, he believed in the basic goodness of people, and that under the right circumstances, anybody could be brought together to cooperate and share a nation with anybody else.
As you know, Mandela’s mission, from the moment he left prison, was to make black South Africans and white South Africans share a nation. He wasn’t interested in a black takeover. He didn’t want a black South Africa. He wanted blacks to be represented fairly and he knew that would mean a black majority government, but he wanted whites to feel part of that nation. He spent many years in prison learning about Afrikaner culture and history, getting to know the prison guards.
And the language, right?
Yes, he learned Afrikaans. It was partly, I think, just because he was an intellectually curious guy, but it was also because he knew that in order to make Afrikaners feel a part of this vision that he had for South Africa, he had to show them that he understood and respected them.
The story I tell in my book is about when that principle and that learning are put to the utmost test, about three years after Mandela has been released from prison, when he is in a power sharing arrangement with the white government. They’re preparing the country for democratic elections and it’s pretty much a done deal that Mandela will be elected president, because there’s a black majority and he’s the head of the ANC. But they’re putting in a lot of groundwork to make sure that this democratic election is truly democratic.
Mandela faces this alarming problem of a large, armed militia of white supremacists. We use that term quite loosely these days, in my view: these were real white supremacists, they really did believe in the genetic and cultural superiority of the white race. There was a rally in 1993 with about 15,000 of them. They were armed, they had swastikas, and at the climax this old general, Constand Viljoen, gets up to speak. He promises a bloody conflict that he will lead for a white separatist state, and the crowd cheers. Mandela sees this on TV and is faced with an alarming choice. ‘Do I crush this guy? Could I go in with the security services and take this guy and his allies out? But then I risk making him a martyr, just like I was. Do I want to use the might of the South African military? Am I sure that the South African military is loyal to me and not him?’ So he decides on this other route, which is, ‘I’m going to invite him to tea’. Obviously, being English, I find this particularly exciting: everything can be sorted out over tea.
Mandela invites him not to an official building, but to his home in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Viljoen turns up with a couple of other generals and waits for the staff to open the door. But it’s Mandela who opens the door, with a big grin, and says, ‘Hi, guys, very nice to meet you, come in.’ He gives them an effusive welcome. Then he says, ‘Do you mind if Viljoen and I just have a few words first, before we start the meeting properly? And he takes him into his living room. There’s a tea set there. And Mandela says, ‘How do you like your tea?’ and serves him tea just to his liking with the right amount of milk and the right amount of sugar.
The reason I’m telling you this, and the reason Carlin tells it, is that 13 years later Carlin interviewed Viljoen. In that time, Viljoen had completely disarmed his militias. He had ordered unilateral disarmament for no concessions whatsoever and become part of the democratic process. And, indeed, he became an ardent admirer and friend of Mandela. A lot of his supporters wanted Mandela to be hanged. Viljoen had been a ruthless enforcer of apartheid, of white supremacy. But he was completely turned around. More than a decade later, he remembered that moment, of being served tea by Mandela, as the moment he started to switch. He just sort of pivoted.
I talked about Mandela as a genius at psychology. He was trying to lower Viljoen’s defenses. Viljoen was the representative of a whole crowd. Mandela understood that what was underlying their aggression was fear and insecurity. It was the fear of humiliation. Viljoen was an incredibly proud man, a patriot, even if it was a particularly white form of patriotism. His fear was that his whole identity and everything he cares about was about to be wiped out and that he, and people who he cared about, were going to be humiliated.
Mandela clearly realized that the first thing he needed to do was to show him, personally, that he respected Viljoen and was prepared to like him: ‘I don’t see myself as a conqueror who’s come to sweep him away, I’m not trying to dominate him, I actually want to include him.’ And the serving of the tea was this tiny gesture that was psychologically and politically very potent. It enabled them to then get into their negotiations, it enabled them to disagree productively, if you like—because there were many things they disagreed on.
“Mandela was an intuitive genius of a psychologist”
The contrast with the way people handle disagreements today is so striking. If Mandela was in a social media conversation, the first thing he would think is, ‘Well, I need to humiliate this guy publicly. I need to tell everybody what a terrible Nazi he was, and what a terrible thing he did to me and my family.’ Which is true. And he was able to say that, once he had shown Viljoen that he wanted to have a disagreement as equals.
After he’d served the tea, Mandela got serious right away and said, ‘Look, you and your people have done a lot of damage. You’ve done a lot of harm to me personally. I’m a father and I didn’t get to see my kids for 20 years.’ Because another key to productive disagreement is that you have to be honest. Viljoen remembered that as well, that it was a really honest conversation. We did put him in prison; what Mandela said was true.
So what Mandela said was, ‘You did terrible things to me’ but he also said, ‘I have a lot of respect for your culture and your history. I know you basically are a good people.’ He told stories of how Afrikaners would look after a black child, if they saw him in trouble, they would take him in. Mandela sought to show Viljoen that he understood the best of their culture, even though he was very honest about the fact they had done him terrible wrongs. It’s just an incredible combination of unflinching honesty and generosity, which is so rare. And of course, as you say, nearly none of us are on that level, but we can all learn a little bit from it, I think.
Let’s go on to the next of the books you’ve chosen on disagreeing, perhaps not so productively in this case. It’s called The Five Percent and it’s by Peter Coleman. Tell me what it’s about.
Peter Coleman is an academic at Columbia University who studies conflict and conflict resolution. He’s written more than one book, but this is his most interesting, I think. It’s about really intractable conflicts like Palestine and Israel, where it’s hard to even define what the disagreement is about because all sides see it so differently. There are many points of conflict, all intertwined with each other and there tends to be a great weight of history weighing down on them. He calls these conflicts the 5% because, he says, 95% of conflicts can be sorted out or resolved if you are a skillful negotiator. You take a rational approach, ‘This is what you want, this is what I want, we’ll find some sort of a compromise’. He says that’s great and that there are some good guys doing that. But then there’s this small fraction of incredibly complex, foggy conflicts where everybody seems to be lost inside.
This book is about how to think about those conflicts. He gives some tips on how to resolve them. He doesn’t pretend it’s easy, you can’t just follow a three-step plan. What you can do is look at lots of examples and see some things that work.
One of the insights I took from it is that conflict is a moving process in which whatever you do is always affecting what the other person does. The way you behave will influence the way the other behaves: if you show emotion and get angry, that’s going to make the other person angry, as well. You can think about that scaled up, when more parties are involved, emotion ripples across these networks. One of his themes is that diplomats and negotiation experts underestimate the role of emotion in conflicts. Emotion is hugely important and things that seem trivial—like the tone you use or the references you make—can be central to resolving or not resolving a conflict.
He points out that really hostile, unproductive disagreements tend to get stuck in straight lines. He’s put pairs of people in a lab and studied their conversations about contentious issues. The ones that are unproductive, where they walk away saying, ‘that was horrible’, tend to be like trench warfare—they just make the same arguments over and over again. There’s very little variety in emotional expression, or in tone. They’re very simple constructs, in other words. With the ones that go better, there’s a lot more variety, both in terms of the types of evidence that people are using and the types of arguments they’re making, but also in the tone. There’s more humor, for instance, there are flashes of anger, and then there’s some laughter. They’re just more expansive and both parties are more flexible.
I thought that was a really valuable insight, because I’ve been stuck in lots of arguments where I feel like people are following a script, and I’m following a script, too. I know when I say this, the other person is going to say that. And then I’m going to come back here and they’re going to go there. It’s like ping pong. His advice is to find a way to disrupt the script and introduce variety into the conversation, maybe making a joke, or acknowledging that something your opponent has said is right and that you agree with them in a way that surprises them or takes them off guard. Whatever it is you can do to stop it becoming this kind of algorithmic exchange, to loosen the boundaries of the conversation, is going to be more creative.
It’s interesting, though, because when we started, we were talking about the ways in which conflict is good, and how disagreements give you information. These intractable conflicts are beyond that, though. There are no redeeming qualities, really, to the Israel Palestine conflict, are there?
No. It’s not that all conflict is good, it’s that conflict can be a force for good. Obviously, conflict can go horribly wrong and that’s why we avoid it. And intractable conflicts are probably the worst outcome of all, they’re continuous and, at the same time, completely unproductive.
But when breakthroughs are made, it’s usually because somebody has been creative in the way they think about it and introduced some sort of fresh element. In the book, I write about the Oslo Accords, where they came fairly close to an agreement. That was a lot to do with the fact that they went to Norway, and got the parties involved together in a completely different place that wasn’t Washington, DC, or Paris, or Rome. It was a wooden house in the countryside. They changed everything about the atmosphere of the conversation. It failed, in the end, but they made a lot more progress than these meetings usually make.
Let’s go on to Mere Civility by Teresa Bejan. I haven’t managed to read the book, but I watched her TED talk and it sounds fascinating. Tell me why you’ve included it on this list.
Teresa Bejan is a political philosopher and historian of 17th century thought. She wanted to set some of the current debates that we’re having over the public and political discourse in historical context. There’s a lot of concern at the moment about civility, ‘Are we having a civil enough discourse? Or is that impossible these days?’ She argues that if you go back to post-Reformation Europe and the New World you see the same arguments playing out in this very different but oddly similar context.
She started off wanting to make the case that civility doesn’t matter as much as we think, that actually it’s a way of excluding those who are “uncivil”, the impolite, from the conversation. In other words, it’s a power move. In the course of writing the book, she comes to a more refined point of view, which is that there is a role for civility, because what civility does is enable you to have really vigorous disagreements with each other. There’s a very basic civility which enables you to be uncivil. Honesty is hugely important and it allows you to have heartfelt, emotional, passionate political exchanges of view with each other.
The figure that she focuses on is Roger Williams, who also became a touchstone for my book. He was a lower middle-class Englishman. Sir Edward Coke, a very senior barrister and judge, sees something in him and scoops him up into the elite. Williams becomes friends with John Milton. They’re both Puritans, absolutely bursting with idealism and religious zeal. Williams goes to Massachusetts to join the colony there. He looks around him and thinks that they’re not Puritan enough and they expel him because he’s a troublemaker. He’s this hugely charismatic, charming guy who’s always getting into arguments because he just can’t help himself. He’s a fundamentalist. He’s a zealot. But he’s an unusual form of zealot who believes that all humans are equal, it’s just that some of them are wrong. He believed that you should be arguing with each other all the time, because you should be trying to convert people.
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You see this brought out in his relationship with the Native Americans. He traded with them, but he also had long conversations about life and death and religion with them, in which he constantly told them that they were wrong about everything, and that they needed to see the world as he did. So, on the one hand, you might say, ‘Okay, well, this guy has been terribly patronizing and offensive, coming along and telling these people what to think.’ But he was also the guy who openly said Native Americans were equal to Westerners and should be thought of as such, which almost nobody else was saying at the time. In fact, he accused the colonists of stealing their land and declared the entire American project to be a fraud.
He is just an inspirational figure. Civility is what you need to keep the other person engaged in the argument. And you want to keep the other person engaged in the argument because you want them to come around to your point of view, eventually.
The argument that we don’t need civility is ultimately self-defeating, I think. The only proper response to somebody who says, ‘We don’t need civility’ is ‘f*** you’. That’s the end of the conversation. Fine, but that means that nobody gets persuaded, and no change happens. It’s completely futile. When it gets confused with an elaborate code of decorum and manners, that’s when it becomes exclusionary, but that wasn’t what Roger Williams was interested in. He wanted to have these arguments out.
In her TED Talk, she says that based on her research on these early modern communities, tolerant places tend to be places “where people learn to hold their noses”—which I thought was a great quote about free speech, really. You have to learn to listen to people.
You have to be interested in them. Williams is unusual for a zealot in that he was really interested in how other people thought and how they believed and how they worshiped. He was interested in the Native Americans. Ultimately, he thought they were going to hell and that they were terrible sinners and needed to be redeemed. But he wanted to understand them better. His vision of a good society was one in which anybody can come along, but you all have to listen to each other. You certainly have to listen to me, so I can persuade you that you’re wrong. And so he went on to found a community in Providence, Rhode Island, which was probably the most religiously, ideologically diverse society up until that point in history, in which Jews and Christians, including Catholics—who even John Locke didn’t think should be included in the Commonweal—were able to come along and live. He wasn’t a liberal. He didn’t think everybody can just come along and is free to believe what they want: ‘I’m not going to tell you what to believe; you’re not going to tell me what to believe, we’ll just worship in our own way.’ No: he thought he was right, that his way of seeing things was the only way, but he wanted to argue with you about it. That’s an interesting distinction.
What is mere civility, then?
It’s the baseline of civility you need to keep other people in the room with you.
So have big rows, but stay reasonably civil?
The point of civility is to enable you to row. The point of civility is not so we all get along and are nice to each other and don’t row. It’s the opposite.
Let’s turn to the last book you’ve chosen on disagreeing which is Learning Lessons from Waco. There is presumably a lot to learn from Waco because it was pretty much an unmitigated disaster.
This book by Jayne Docherty was written a few years afterwards. It’s got quite a lot of sociological jargon in it, but it’s absolutely fascinating. One of the reasons Waco is such an interesting case study is that we have transcripts of the many, many hours of conversations between the FBI and the religious community, the Branch Davidians, in the compound. We see how these negotiations went on and on and on, and just never went anywhere. She does a great job of analyzing why. The FBI negotiators were highly trained, they’d read books and done training courses and had experience of negotiation, but they just weren’t able to make it work.
“Another key to productive disagreement is that you have to be honest”
Her analysis of it is super interesting. She talks about what happens when two parties bring a completely different set of values to the table. Furthermore, they haven’t recognized that that is the issue. They haven’t fully acknowledged that the other side has a legitimate set of values that are different from their own. Until you do that, the substantive negotiation is just going to misfire and go completely the wrong way.
The FBI saw it as a rational, analytical problem, and they had a very secular worldview: ‘We just need to find a way for you to disarm and then come out of this compound, so everybody gets saved.’ The Davidians thought, first of all, that the government was intruding on their freedoms. There was a basic political difference that was never acknowledged by the FBI. Then there was a secondary religious narrative, which was that the Davidians were in an apocalyptic scenario. They had a completely different worldview from the FBI. And because they could never reconcile those two views, they just talked across and over each other.
Didn’t the FBI bring in some religious scholars? That didn’t seem to help, but it seemed like they were trying to understand the Davidians’ worldview at some point?
They did actually make a little bit of progress quite late on in the negotiations, they realized that they needed to understand the Davidians on their own terms, and perhaps talk to them in terms of a Biblical narrative, rather than a secular one. Two religious scholars had volunteered because they’d seen what was happening on TV, and said to the FBI, ‘you just don’t understand where these guys are coming from. They’re seeing everything through the lens of Revelations, everything is a Biblical story here. Let us talk to them—because we can persuade them what the right thing to do is through Biblical narrative and Biblical imagery.’ And they talked to David Koresh, and they made some progress. But it came at the end of the process, and the FBI were getting very impatient. There was huge political pressure to just do something and, of course, that ended in disaster.
I found it really interesting in itself, but also as an analogy for a lot of our worst disagreements, as a culture and politically. There’s one group, often a highly educated group, who think they are being the rational ones, because they are in command of the facts and the evidence. And then there’s them, the great unwashed, who are just emotional and irrational and full of crazy ideas and lies and illusions. And if only we can just bring more facts and information to this debate, and reason our way towards the answer, then we can make progress. And, of course, we just keep getting reminded again and again that this analytical way to see the world is not the way that everybody sees the world. In fact, it’s quite a minority of people. I borrowed from Joseph Henrich’s book–although it wasn’t a book at the time when I wrote the book, it was a paper—where he talks about Western industrialized, The WEIRDest People in the World. I see the FBI and Waco as a good analogy for that kind of misfiring, of miscommunication.
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Ian Leslie is a writer and author of acclaimed books on human behaviour. He writes about psychology, culture, technology and business for the New Statesman, the Economist, the Guardian and the Financial Times.
Ian Leslie is a writer and author of acclaimed books on human behaviour. He writes about psychology, culture, technology and business for the New Statesman, the Economist, the Guardian and the Financial Times.
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