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A Traveler's Guide to Talking to Someone You Totally Disagree With

by Matt Hershberger Nov 18, 2016

I AM A TRAVELER, so I have spent a lot of time talking to people who believe very different things than me, and who I will probably never share worldviews with: The communist student in China who believed the Tiananmen Square Massacre was justified; the South African cabbie who loved George W. Bush because “he kills Muslims”; the Argentine barfly who insisted that the racist gringos would murder Barack Obama in the first year of his term.

I was never going to agree with these guys. But over time, I learned how to have conversations with them that were productive and illuminating for both sides — even though neither of us changed our minds in the end.

Last week got ugly. Trump’s election sparked a horrific flame war on social media, and in many cases, it looked as if a lot of hot air was being blown, but no progress was actually being made. Liberals were “elitist.” Conservatives were “stupid.” Everyone got to feel superior to one another, and nothing got done.

But this isn’t a particularly helpful or enriching way to engage with people who think differently than you. As someone who has had some (mild) success in engaging people who are fundamentally different to myself, I wanted to share a few pointers that I have learned as an argumentative wanderer.

1. Don’t rely too much on facts.

There’s a popular saying from the former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This is true! But saying that to someone you’re arguing with is a very good way to get yourself punched in your stupid smug face.

Look: there are no “false” facts. Facts are either facts or they aren’t. So yes: there’s a good chance that someone you’re arguing with is factually wrong about one thing or the other. But the problem with facts is that there are a lot of them. There are 7 billion sentient human beings living on this planet, and what we don’t collectively know could (nearly) fill a universe.

A single person doesn’t have a chance at fully understanding anything. You are confronted with constant information, and have to develop some system for sifting through all of it, selecting the information that’s important, and organizing it in your mind in a meaningful way. We humans like to organize our facts using stories.

This is important: when talking to someone you disagree with, listen to their story, not their facts. Trying to fight someone on facts is like trying to destroy a beach one grain of sand at a time. Stories are also not easy to change, but they are where the real power is. Which brings us to step 2:

2. Trade stories.

Stories are like assholes: everyone knows a lot of them. The most fulfilling moments while you’re traveling are when someone tells you their story, and gives you a glimpse into their (very different) life. These stories are incredible reminders both of the diversity of human experience, and of the fundamental humanity that holds us all together.

They’re also a great way of explaining political or ideological differences. Last week, post-election, I got into an argument with a Trump supporter who was pretty furious with liberal America. I identified myself as a liberal, and he kinda hated on me for a second, but when I refused to get into the my facts vs. your facts war, he opened up about his family’s escape from Cuba a generation ago.

He told me how Castro had destroyed his country, and how communism had hurt his family. He saw Barack Obama’s form of government as creeping communism, and that’s why he was so opposed to “liberals” like myself.

I disagree with this interpretation of Barack Obama, but it’s hard to not sympathize with a family that was driven from its own country. I will not change this man’s mind — his history is too strong — but he got to tell his story, then I told mine. I told of my family’s experiences with right-wing El Salvador, which in some ways mirrored his family’s experiences.

And he was totally cool about it. We could both acknowledge one another as human. He will no longer be able to say “All liberals are smug and elitist.” I will no longer be able to say, “All Trump supporters are idiots.” A very small amount of progress was made.

And then, of course, another liberal hopped on, started debating him on the facts of the matter, and the flame war restarted.

3. Be vulnerable.

If you want to really get to know someone, you have to let your guard down. This is actually a much easier thing to do when you’re traveling than when you’re at home. At home, you build up walls to protect yourself. You have routines, you have defenses, and you can spend a huge amount of time making sure that the people who you spend most of your time around know the least about you. Until I opened up about it, my closest family members didn’t know I’d been struggling with depression for years.

This was one of the most fundamental facts of my existence during my late 20s. But I successfully walled it off so that only one person — my wife — could see it.

But when you’re traveling, you’re in a new place, surrounded by people you will probably never see again. There is much less risk in making yourself vulnerable. So you have bizarre, deep, intense, intimate conversations with strangers under the stars, or in the backseats of busses, or in the corner of grimy pubs.

Vulnerability is scary, but it is, in part, what gives travelers such a high when they go out and see new people. Because often — not always, but often — you bare yourself to someone and they don’t blanch in horror. They smile and say, “me too.”

People will not always recognize your common humanity. But you will get nowhere if you don’t recognize theirs. And there’s no way to recognize theirs without also revealing yours. Show your true self to people. It’s scary, and yes, you may get hurt. But human frailty is one thing we all have in common.

4. Don’t give into anger, contempt, or hate.

Hate takes up a lot of energy, and it hurts you more than it hurts the people you’re aiming at. There is a philosophy among the Bantu people of South Africa known as “ubuntu.” This roughly translates to “I am because we are.” It is important to remember that by recognizing other people’s dignity and worth, you are affirming your own. This goes not only for friendly strangers you meet on the road, but for personal acquaintances you have intense disagreements with.

But hate doesn’t appear in a vacuum. It tends to, as Master Yoda says, come from fear and anger. It also comes from contempt. Relationship psychologists have found that the one factor that is most predictive of future trouble in a relationship is the presence of contempt. Contempt basically poisons the well — you can’t have a good relationship with someone if you think you’re better than them.

You can fight contempt with the other steps — usually, knowing someone’s story helps explain why they are the way they are. And by making yourself vulnerable, you are essentially humbling yourself — it’s hard to convince yourself that you’re better than someone when you’ve just shown them your weakness, your sadness, or your fear.

By being humble and by listening, you can begin to understand the lives of others. You may not be able to change their minds, or bend them according to your will, but you’ll both leave your encounter richer for the experience, and a little less alone.

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