Some people are the human version of migraines.
And the worst thing about it? You find them everywhere: at home, in your social circles, at work. They are unrelenting, bothersome, and argumentative. An insufferable group of people — one might go as far as to say — who live off getting on your nerves, and you can’t stand being in the same hemisphere with them.
So, as any sensible person would, you try to get rid of them like the annoying pests they are, regardless of whether they are a family member, friend, or coworker.
I have, for quite some time, been fascinated by this instinctive distaste for conflict in us. Partly because I keep getting labeled “a headache” myself by those living with the unfortunate pleasure of knowing me personally, and partly because of my tendency — though not always the case — to hold in low regard those who, dare I say, are migraine-inducing.
I have since realized that doing so is a stupid idea and to throw caution into the wind and going rogue on our instincts on this matter is precisely what we ought to be doing.
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Here are three little-known reasons why you should love those who disagree with you, even if you must do so with a pinch of salt.
1. Dissenting Views Help You Understand Where You Are Coming From
“I’m a philosopher. If you don’t argue with me, I don’t know what to think. So, if we argue, I have to say, “thank you,” because owing to the courtesy of your taking a different point of view, I understand what I think and mean. So, I can’t get rid of you.”
And yet, we seldom reflect on how our thought processes work. How we decide to decide, how our opinions take form, or where our biases spring from — these are no easy questions to entertain, and they are even harder to swallow.
And to have them brought out into the spotlight so others can call them out and poke holes in our inflated egos seems a bit too much for us to handle.
So, we sweep them under the carpet of our minds, never to let it see the light of day or inconvenience our sense of self or pride or identity or whatever you want to call it, ever again.
But sometimes, we forget about our self-imposed self-preservation protocols and find ourselves at the crosshairs of an opponent with a different argument or a contrasting point of view.
You might think that those rare transgressions will do you some good — and it might — but then again, you’d be betting your hopes against evolution and that introduces all kinds of obstacles. Why?
Because the moment you put yourself in a vulnerable position and even though it could be your saving grace, your sympathetic nervous system is crying foul, kicking your fight-or-flight responses into overdrive.
Before you know it, you go on the offensive, throw impartiality out the proverbial window, and flood your mind with all sorts of reasons why you are right and the other wrong.
Now, you can blame evolution all you want but playing the blame game will do you no good either.
Instead, it appears to me that the solution here — however much of a cliché this may sound — is for you to grow comfortable being uncomfortable.
That is to say, you must be open and willing to have your opinions challenged, your worldviews questioned, and your innermost thoughts ridiculed because there’s more value in constructive criticism or an objective arm-wrestling of opinions than meets the eye.
This might mean that those who disagree with you may sometimes desecrate what you hold sacred or expose a side of you that you’d rather keep to yourself, but that’s the compromise you must make if you want to arrive at an all-things-considered, unbiased, and informed decision.
In my book, I find that an acceptable price to pay to save myself from living with an incredibly naive and parochial worldview.
And in the case of a business, your success at building up such a tolerance could translate to significant savings both in money and time.
And here’s a little secret from me to you: you needn’t be a philosopher to practice this. All you need to do is to muster up some courage to let yourself be receptive to countervailing schools of thought.
After all, prejudice and self-preservation are the archenemies of possibilities and greatness.
2. Countervailing Points of View Lessens the Risk of Groupthink
— Alex Kantrowitz, Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever
Mark Zuckerberg understands this. He appreciates the importance of reality-testing and the significance of listening to countervailing viewpoints and appraising alternative courses of action, even if that means he had to put up with uncomfortable boardroom battles.
More power to him, I must say.
After all, history is littered with tantalizing tales of how groupthink — a term coined in the early 1970s by the psychologist Irving Janis to describe how concurrence-seeking and striving for unanimity by members in certain in-groups leads to blunders in judgment and decision making — brought about the early demise of once great and unstoppable companies, derailed entire war efforts and wreaked havoc in entire industries.
It is, however, curious to note that mere disagreements alone are by no means a panacea for groupthink, especially if it is only done as some sort of lip service to create an illusion of dissent.
The good news, though, is that with a conscious effort to surround yourself with a true devil’s advocate who is empowered and driven and will not hesitate to call you out on your BS and thus keep you on your toes, you can always lessen the risk of it.
The upside of your tolerating it could very well be the secret tool that makes you an outlier of success where others wither away and die.
And just in the same way, it could be the quality that helps you save your business from intransigence, irrelevance or certain perish as it happened to Swissair, the American auto industry, or the banks during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008–09.
3. Contrarian Points of View Spur Original Thinking
“To balance out a strong culture, you also need a steady supply of critical opinions. Even when they’re wrong, they’re useful — they disrupt knee-jerk consensus, stimulate original thought, and help organizations find novel solutions to problems…Cohesion and dissent sound contradictory, but a combination of the two is what brings novel ideas to the table — and keeps a strong culture from becoming a cult.”
— Adam Grant, How to Build a Culture of Originality
We now know what happens when we choose collegiality over authentic dissent.
But when we do get past our desire to maintain group harmony and dissent in those instances that call for it, encourage it, and entertain it, something magical happens. It results in radical ideas.
And more often than not, that is the stuff of novel thinking and original ideas.
So, how do you do that? How do you elicit novel thinking and original ideas from contrarian points of view? By engaging in integrative thinking, which, in essence, is the art of bringing together antithetical and sometimes poles apart points of views and synthesizing them to arrive at a solution that’s either new, divergent, or superlative to what’s being done as usual or held as true and immutable.
That could materialize in the form of a better line of code, a simpler business process, a new product line, or even an entirely new business unit.
And the best part? Those who can find new meaning and novel ways of doing things by synthesizing contradicting views are not born; they are forged.
In other words, you can teach yourself to become an integrative thinker, too.
Principles to Remember
- Reflect on how your thought processes work. And do it often so you can take a moment, relax and course correct when necessary
- Reality-test your first assumptions. Make it a habit to seek disconfirming evidence to avoid confirmation bias
- Encourage and empower others to express their viewpoints, even if they are contrarian or unpopular
- Surround yourself with an impartial devil’s advocate who is empowered and keen to keep you sharp and focused on his own accord. In other words, find your Peter Thiel to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg
- Internalize the disagreements too much or take them too personally. Learn to compartmentalize and to move on without traumatizing yourself in the process
- Commit to the first thought that pops into your mind and follow it blindly. Explore your options and attack them with the reality of what’s happening
- Give up that easy. If you notice a pattern that everyone is agreeing to everything all the time, air your frustrations instead of keeping it yourself. At the same time, don’t be a jerk. Be kind, nice and considerate with your dissent
- Be cute by appointing someone to contradict you in a cosmetic and insincere role-playing capacity and a role-playing capacity only so that you can create the illusion of dissent and still do things your way