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How to Talk to Unreasonable People When YOU Are an Unreasonable Person

May 20, 2021

“Nobody knows anything” is a well-known quote from Hollywood screenwriter William Golding
(who gave us the charming The Princess Bride and the decidedly less charming Marathon Man,
which gave dentistry a bad name for a generation). In making this rather obvious claim,
Goldman hit a nerve (dentistry pun intended!) in Hollywood and, I would argue, provided a
piece of wisdom that could be at the core of our current cultural challenges.

I know a few things, but my knowledge is absolutely dwarfed by that which I have yet to learn
and that which is unlearnable. The humility of knowing that we know essentially nothing is a
great governor for arrogance. Yet there are a lot of folks who seem to have a great deal of
certainty about things that they cannot reasonably be expected to know. This is an example of
the Dunning-Krueger Effect, which suggests that those who are the least knowledgeable have
the most certainty about the truth of their beliefs. The less they know, the more confident they
feel about what they (don’t) know. A good self-test is as follows: if you think you are absolutely
right about something, you may be experiencing the Dunning-Krueger Effect yourself!

Historically, the Dunning-Krueger Effect has been, at worst, a nuisance. But now, anyone with
an email account is able to access social media platforms and having a voice to millions. The ill-
informed have found one another, and they like what they hear. And they want others to know
what they (don’t) know.

So, we have become increasingly polarized. Sure, we come together once in a while, when a
community is in peril or there is a common good to be served. But very quickly, things become
polarized. Even banging on pots and pans to support health care workers (which…why?) was
near universal at the start of the COVID crisis. Within days, the criticisms started. Why are we
trapped on our balconies banging pots and pans? Why can’t we hug our health care workers
instead? Is banging on pots and pans helpful? Are we just creating false expectations? And so

In my clinical work, I have found it challenging on occasion to have what I feel to be a rational
conversation with clients and colleagues who have viewpoints that differed from what I
perceive as being “normal.” And I’m a psychologist! Having irrational conversations is
something I am very comfortable with, yet recently, it seems that any such conversations elicit
an emotional response heretofore unknown.

So, how do we lower the temperature when we are talking with – and trying to understand –
those with differing viewpoints? Some thoughts:

1) Actively listen – it is probable that they are trying to communicate something beyond
their overt statements. If they are opposed to wearing masks through the COVID
pandemic, do they distrust the health care system, perhaps? If so, what factors have led
them to this sort of thinking? Is there a personal connection?

2) Challenge sourcesThey is not a source. “I read it online” is not a source. “Everyone
knows!” Not a source. “I know someone who…” Almost a source, but not really a
source. A reliable and valid source is one that can be trusted to provide consistent,
clear, accurate and verifiable evidence

3) Prepare to agree to disagree. What can be won in arguing? Sometimes, it’s simply an
ego thing, but in such cases, what have we really won? A brief and passing sense of
superiority until someone with more knowledge comes along and knocks us off our
pedestal. If, on the other hand, if there is a practical matter – the vaccination of a child,
for instance, where the parents disagree about the safety and protective features of
vaccines – an argument may be necessary because a decision/ action must happen.
However, it is likely that emotions will rule over logic and reason.

4) Find a common logical ground. Any communication that is embedded in emotion is
unlikely to be easy to navigate and the more complex the communication, the more
depth. But also, the greater the potential for error. If communication remains fact/
evidence based, we can try to keep the emotion to a minimum (not eliminated, to be
sure, but minimized).

5) Play nice. In kindergarten, we learned to share and take turns. We weren’t good at it
back then, but we hopefully have learned our lessons over time and gotten better at it
since. So, listen, take turns, share nicely, follow the rules and if things get heated, take a
moment, and have a snack or take a nap or just wander away aimlessly. Kindergarten
kids do this ALL the time – some say it’s an attention issue, but I think it’s just their way
of saying “The conversation serves no purpose, so I will now leave to find something
more engaging in which to involve myself.” Or something like that!

6) Give up the last word. This one is HARD! I even have a hard time writing it out. I don’t
want to allow someone else to have the last word because my little brain tells me that
the person who speaks last in a disagreement “wins.” It’s not particularly intelligent
thinking, but sometimes our ego can be a petulant child. Simple allowing the other
person the last word does not indicate that they “won,” and even if it did, who cares
beside your dissatisfied ego? “You may be right” is a great phrase when used honestly
(not sarcastically or dismissively) because it suggests that the other person “may” be
right – they may not be too. There are also permission-granting privileges aligned with
the word “may” (Yes, you may go the washroom”) which – in a perverse way – satisfies
the ego. Due to your perceived superior position, you will essentially allow the other
person to be right.

And on that note, and in the spirit of giving the last word, I will close. Happy communication!

Copyright Macdonald Psychology Group 2021

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