Reasons to Listen to Whom You Don’t Agree With
Our culture has become one of canceling, of reacting to what we disagree with and whom we dislike by ignoring, unfollowing, blocking, banning, ostracizing. Camouflaged as non-violent protest, it can well be passive-aggressive intolerance of other views and people. It often also is admission of helplessness regarding how to respectfully and constructively handle disagreement.
Like many of you, I’ve been on both sides of this: I’ve blocked people I disagree with, and I’ve been blocked by people who disagree with me. While it was easy to see how harsh others’ reactions were when they blocked me, it took me a while to notice how harsh I was when blocking others. The following outlines my current thinking on why we actually want to listen, and keep listening, to others. Not all of them, because we still need some “intellectual proximity”—but probably more than we think.
- You Could Have Misunderstood Something
- You Could Be Wrong
- You Could Have Different Context
- You Could Be Right But Better Able to Help
- Everyone Could Be Right and Be Able to Better Understand Each Other
- You Could Learn Something
- You Could Do Your Part in Working Together
- You Could Keep Open a Possibly Important Connection
- You Could Avoid Building an Echo Chamber
- How About You, Jens?
You Could Have Misunderstood Something
Almost 60% of face-to-face negotiations resulted in mutually beneficial agreements, while only .
People these days don’t even need a written interaction or a telephone negotiation anymore, but 280 or fewer characters to “cancel” another person.
Consider: On the one hand we say it takes time to understand the other party (to negotiate a win/win)—and on the other hand we assert that one tweet is enough not to respect them as a person.
The point here is, it’s super-easy to misunderstand each other. Through any medium. It requires effort to understand someone—largely listening and asking for clarification. It may be a fair (and smart) assumption that those we don’t agree with, we misunderstand.
You Could Be Wrong
Errare humanum est—to err is human. Our disagreement with another person may not only be due to us misunderstanding them, but also because of us being wrong.
There may be several reasons for that, many of them benign—for example, when we don’t have information the other person has.
For example, we might run into a person arguing how much crime there was in a certain country. We traveled there, we know the place, it feels entirely safe to us, and we disagree. But while we use our own experience as the basis for our conviction the place was safe, the other person may present a recent study showing how the country ranks poorly in comparison to neighboring countries, and that crime rates have gone up year by year. (This is why comparisons are so important.) The person we were close to slamming for their ignorance had hard data that we were lacking.
You Could Have Different Context
Recognizing that we may not only have fewer, more, or different data, of varying quality, we may generally have different information and, therefore, context. That’s not meant in a qualitative, let alone judging way; it’s just to say that our whole frame may be different.
Picture this scenario: An employee complains their request to transfer teams didn’t go through fast enough. We hear about this and empathize. A Holy Person of Twitter goes above and beyond and starts a campaign against the employee’s manager and the company (they care).
Many of us probably support the empathizing part. But what if we then learn that the company had no obligation and few opportunities to allow the transfer; that the process had been fast-tracked; and that the employee had a history of showing entitlement and making excessive demands?
Would this different context change our view—your view?
It would change mine, and that’s why I believe we need to listen and ask more. Starting a war should not be the first tool in our belt, but the last—if one at all.
You Could Be Right But Better Able to Help
Now, let’s think about the scenario that we’re entirely right, and the other side whom we disagree with and whom we dislike is not. We can choose not to listen, and block and ban them for life. But is there no merit anymore to keep listening?
One good reason for this is that we could do something for them. Instead of ignoring and dropping them, we could do the opposite and reach out, to share the facts and context that we have. (Even better if we do so constructively, in compassionate understanding that everyone can err, and that with all their erring, people may still have good intentions.)
This keeping with the other side would bring us into a position to help them, and with that, help ourselves: We have done what we could, and if we and our case were convincing, we may have quelled what upset us in the first place.
Everyone Could Be Right and Be Able to Better Understand Each Other
When I was 19 years old, I accidentally, stupidly ran a red light after a long day at work. I was penalized in a number of ways, from a hefty fine to points in the traffic registry to an extension of my license probation period to going through a special traffic school seminar (it was the most expensive split second of my life).
In that traffic school, the teacher affixed a coin on a desk and asked us to describe what we saw. One person saw heads. Another person saw an angled coin. Another person saw tails. The point was, we could observe different things—and all be right. (How this related to traffic rules, I don’t recall.)
This point is important. We can all be right. We can see the same thing and make valid observations and valid inferences. What may come off as absurd at first may not be that absurd if we consider it may literally reflect the other side of the same coin that we are talking about. And therefore it may be that we’re all right. This awareness may allow us to understand complex problems better, as well as one another. Let’s not immediately dismiss the other’s views, and then dump the person.
You Could Learn Something
When we don’t immediately ignore and dismiss other people’s views, we might also learn something. Sometimes, something very important. In other cases, something minor. It may be a philosophical truism that we can always learn something from other people, because everyone has a unique view of life and our different realities (and I’m not referring to dualism this time).
In general, anything we experience constitutes only a snapshot. At a certain moment, x “happens,” or y does z. The next moment, something else happens or is done. In other words, nothing is static; everything changes. Even if we exclude context and error, the person we disagree with or dislike might choose something agreeable or likable in the future—perhaps the very near future. Avoiding to listen to them deprives us not only from pleasantry, but also from learning.
You Could Do Your Part in Working Together
Next, all this disagreeing, disliking, and disbanding also ruins the chances of collaboration and cooperation, of working together. We already have a problem with competition; we don’t need to compound this by “canceling” others. We cannot work with whom we cancel.
You Could Keep Open a Possibly Important Connection
Beyond collaboration, if we don’t shun each and everyone expressing a different, conflicting, or offensive view, we can actually maintain the option to forge meaningful connections. Note “maintain the option”—it may not be likely that we seek an intimate connection with someone who thinks unlike us. However, only by not closing the door would we be able to allow for any connection.
In the end, who knows how the other person—or we—may change, and how things will look in a few months.
You Could Avoid Building an Echo Chamber
Ultimately, responding with nukes and bomb carpets to anyone voicing a different view than us, to anyone not enjoying our immediate express approval leads us straight to building our own echo chamber.
That is a real danger, making us visit each of the previous points: In our echo chamber we will not resolve our misunderstandings; we may never stand corrected; we will not understand or assume other perspectives; we will not help anyone; we will not add to mutual understanding; we will learn less; we will not do our share of possibly collaborating with others; and we will deny connections.
❧ None of this is to say that there are no reasons not to listen to others. (There are probably as many good reasons for that.) Yet as challenging as it looks like, it can be useful for us to listen to others, even when we disagree with them, even when we dislike them. At the very least, we benefit from maintaining some connection. Which is why “cancel culture” can so easily be little else than intolerant—hatred.
How About You, Jens?
Thank you for asking. I can talk smart all day! I struggle, too. It itches me to just hit “mute” or “block” when I read something I disagree with, or when I see a face I don’t like. But I realize, more and more, that that’s not a sane or helpful response—neither for me, nor for the other. The reasons for that I just outlined above. The more I think about it, the more unfair and unjust I feel when thinking about dismissing another view, and especially a person.
Overall this is a challenge. It’s perhaps a growing challenge, too: People seem to get more and more aggressive; people seem to act more and more entitled. That makes it increasingly hard to be tolerant and forgiving. Yet the downward spiral this opens is also a problem. Therefore, it seems even more important that we drag our feet not to feed the spiral, and to cultivate understanding and kindness and, yes, forgiveness. It may actually not be as hard as we all fear it to be.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead—currently manager for Developer Experience at LivePerson—and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!
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