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"...many disagreements create a “spiral of conflict” rather than cooperation. Each side is focused more on proving “rightness” than on resolving the problem...As an experiment, for a couple weeks try to truly understand others' opinions and positions without defending your own."

What if You Considered Other Peoples' Views?

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

“No, that can't be right” vs. “Really? Why is that?”

“I think that's wrong” vs. “What do you think?”

“That's stupid!” vs. “That's interesting—tell me more.”

“No, you don't understand” vs. “Why do you think that?”

The Tendency to Defend Opinions

bird fight

The first reaction many people have to a difference of opinion, values, or perspective is to focus on defending their own viewpoint. Whether the conflict occurs in a relationship, in a social or work group, or even between countries, the initial reaction is “I'm right and the other person must be mistaken.”

Interestingly, though, people who are considered brilliant conversationalists and who appeal to others are those who show an interest in other people. Instead of insisting upon others hearing their viewpoint, they listen to others. And they don't just silently listen but they actively listen. In other words, they show interest, ask questions, and make comments related to the other person's statements.

On the other hand, fiercely defending an opinion is often viewed by the other person as belittling their position. Sometimes defending a position is overtly derogatory by suggesting the other person is biased, self-serving in some way, or woefully misinformed. As a result, many disagreements create a “spiral of conflict” rather than cooperation. Each side is focused more on proving “rightness” than on resolving the problem.

The pressure to conform to views occurs even more strongly when a person is part of a group than when they are not. For instance, a family may expect other family members to agree with their views or be subject to ridicule, criticism, or hostility. This is often referred to as the “black sheep effect (Sammut, et al., 2015).” Similarly, in businesses, people who often voice opposing views are not considered “team players.”

Yet, important change can often be affected by those who voice unpopular views. For instance, in the field of psychotherapy back in the 1950s, a researcher, Hans Eysenck, reviewed the literature and stated that psychotherapy was less effective than doing nothing because most problems cleared up within two years on their own for 2/3's of people. His viewpoint created a firestorm of controversy among psychotherapists. However, by bringing attention to the issue, he forced psychotherapy research to focus on developing more scientifically rigorous therapies. Instead of therapy based on the therapist's opinion, the criteria for effective and ethical therapy changed to methods supported by research evidence.

To effectively resolve conflict, it is necessary to overcome the tendency to see others as wrong or morally challenged. The initial reaction to Eysenck was to show that he was wrong. However, eventually, the mental health field listened to him and began to develop therapies that were based on the criteria that therapy needed to be more effective than doing nothing. In other words, therapy needed to show success in less than two years or needed to help more than 72% of people.

Sources of Bias

More recent research shows that even though therapists may learn the scientifically-based treatments, they still tend to believe that something unique in their methods are the causes of change in clients. These researchers concluded there are several reasons for this bias (Lilienfeld et al., 2014). Such reasons seem to be the same biases why people often believe their viewpoint is the correct one.

1) Commonsense bias. This bias is the tendency to believe the world exists in the way we see it and disregard other information. Often, these beliefs are expressed by “This is what worked for me,” which may be true but it is presented as if it is the only truth for everyone.

I often hear people in the media ridiculing the need for certain research: “Why did they need to spend the money on that? That's commonsense!” True, sometimes the outcome of the research is the same as what commonsense tells us, but sometimes it is not. The only way to know if commonsense is accurate is through research.

Yet, often when research shows commonsense to be inaccurate, many people, even educated people, hold to their viewpoint. This even occurs when presented with data that may show they are wrong: “There must be something wrong with the data!”

2) Seeking confirming information bias. Referred to in the psychological literature as “confirmation bias” is the tendency to only seek information that is consistent with your own beliefs. Opposing information is dismissed, ignored, or distorted. As a result, you strengthen your beliefs by ignoring other information.

People want to hear what they want to hear. How often during the current presidential election cycle do you wonder “How can people believe that candidate?” Due to this confirmation bias, they believe a candidate because they ignore opposing information by claiming it is faulty in some way.

3) Conclusions bias. “Illusory causation” is the psychological term referring to the tendency to see cause from our own perspective. As a result, we may develop inaccurate conclusions of cause. Just because one thing follows another does not mean the first thing caused the second. Or, just because you intended to affect something does not mean you were the cause of the outcome. Such a bias is an illusion of control, believing we have more power than we do.

For instance, if I, as a therapist, use a treatment procedure to help reduce anxiety and the person gets better I am likely to attribute their improvement to my treatment. However, that perspective may not always be accurate. Often enough in my years of therapy I have seen that it may not be my carefully crafted techniques but some other factor that caused the improvement. Frequently clients have referred to some comment I made as having made such a difference for them and I would realize that it was an offhand comment I made while walking to the door at the end of therapy not intending to be therapeutic.

Use Active Listening to Overcome These Biases

Think of the last conflict you had with someone. How much did you truly listen to the other person vs. trying to make your point? How open were you to considering another point of view? If not, why was that? What were your concerns? If you considered their viewpoint, how much impact would it have on your life? Would your life be adversely affected in any way? If not, why not listen fully?

What can be the harm in listening to someone? Many times people defend their viewpoint for self-satisfaction alone, for the purpose of boosting their ego by showing they are right. However, listening doesn't mean you have to accept the other's position and change your own. It only means being considerate of another person's opinions, values, and beliefs. It might mean accepting that others can have valid reasons for their positions as well.

Instead, be open to understanding the differences in your viewpoint and the other person's. Sometimes, by listening you might find that you misunderstood. Other times just by clearly understanding the other person you might find that you are not completely in disagreement and can find some common ground. Finally, once the other person feels understood, he or she may be more willing to listen to your position.

Certainly, if the conflict involves engaging in a behavior that could harm you or others, you may need to defend your position strongly. However, much conflict doesn't involve such circumstances. Generally, it means just listening to someone and validating that you heard and understood their viewpoint.

The best way to do this is through active listening. Instead of silently listening to someone (while thinking about how they are wrong), show interest by fully attending to them. By doing so, it becomes easier to ask them to listen to your position. And when you have two people listening to one another rather than stubbornly defending a position more can be accomplished.

Active listening involves several components:

1) Ask questions. When people have disagreements they are often focused on their own response. Rather than trying to defend your position, try to fully understand their position. The best way to do this is by asking questions. To ask a question, you need to first listen to what they are saying so that you can frame the question.

In addition, the question needs to show genuine interest in the topic. Many people will try to phrase a question to express their own viewpoint or to put a person on the spot such as “What is your data for that?” or “How do you know that?” Instead, ask questions that allow the other person to fully express their position.

For example, your mother-in-law gives you unsolicited advice on child-rearing: “You shouldn't let him spend so much time playing video games! He needs to be active and outside.” What is your first reaction? Probably to bristle at the criticism and think, “Why can't she mind her own business? She wasn't that great of a mother herself.” However, what would happen if you just listened to her viewpoint? What about showing interest by asking questions? Maybe even agreeing. “I'm sure you're right. I find it hard to get him to do anything else without a lot of conflict. He just wears me down. What did you do when your children were difficult?” In this way, you change the interaction from one of competition (proving who is the better mother) to one of cooperation—if your mother-in-law has good intentions.

2) Paraphrase. When listening to someone else, repeat back to them what you understand about what they are saying. This not only shows that you are paying attention, but it allows them to clarify their position.

Although paraphrasing is helpful with any kind of discussion, it can be particularly useful when disagreements occur. Most arguments degrade into sound bites which don't permit a full understanding of the issue. Instead of listening, most people will interrupt with their response. Paraphrasing and fully understanding the person's position can help the argument be resolved more easily.

“What you're saying is...”

“I understand you to mean...is that correct?”

“If I'm understanding you correctly, you mean...”

3) Attentive body language. Show consideration and respect through your body language. Sometimes people will listen without really paying attention to the other. Certain body language will imply lack of interest such as poor eye contact, rolling eyes, jaw and/or fist tightening, defensive positioning such as folding arms or turning away from the other person. Such body language tells the other person you are not truly listening.

Active listening includes an open body posture so that you are facing the other person without tension. Maintaining good eye contact with appropriate head nodding also shows interest. Tone of voice can convey a great deal so be sure to use a tone that indicates interest instead of sarcasm. “Why do you think that?” can be said with a tone that indicates interest in the “why” or it can be said with sarcasm: “Why do you think THAT?!”

In summary, it doesn't hurt you to show an interest in others' opinions and it may give you greater understanding why they believe the way they do. Sometimes it can solve a problem or improve a relationship. And, if nothing else, you may learn something. As an experiment, for a couple weeks try to truly understand others' opinions and positions without defending your own.

Lilienfeld, S.O., Ritschel, L.A., Lynn, S.J., Cautin, R.L. and Latzman, R.D. (2014). Why Ineffective Psychotherapies Appear to Work: A Taxonomy of Causes of Spurious Therapeutic Effectiveness. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9, 355–387. DOI: 10.1177/1745691614535216

Sammut, G., Bezzina, F. and Sartawi, M. (2015). The Spiral of Conflict: Naïve Realism and the Black Sheep Effect in Attributions of Knowledge and Ignorance. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 21, 289–294. DOI: 10.1037/pac0000098


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