The Circumstances

I am sitting down to write this immediately after one of the most honest conversations I’ve ever had with my brother. The reason I’m posting it to LessWrong is because I think it is a case study in rationality, emotion, personality, political partisanship, and methods of conversation and debate, all topics that are of interest to segments of this community. We spoke for about an hour, first while driving, and then for a long time at the curb.

We started talking about my brother’s interest in getting involved with the local socialist party. He is not the most talkative person, and is a deeply thoughtful and very well-read person. One of his strong interests is in politics and economics, so I decided to ask him about his thoughts on socialism. I am no lassaiz-faire capitalist, but my political preferences are for well-regulated free markets.

Rising Tension

Our conversation became tense quickly. As I tried to ask him critical questions in a neutral, genuine, and thoughtful manner, he would dismiss them using words like “silly,” “stupid,” “artificial binary,” “lack of imagination,” and so on. This didn’t feel good, but I continued, because my hope was that by maintaining my composure and demonstrating repeatedly that I was really listening and responding with my valid questions and concerns, he would see that I really wanted to engage with him and wasn’t trying to shut him down. I used techniques like trying to find our cruxes of disagreement, framing them as respectfully and clearly as I could, but he would swat them down. He grew audibly angrier as the car ride went along.

I could have tried to divert the conversation to some other topic, but I don’t think that’s healthy, and our family dynamic is such that I feel very confident that this would not have led to a happy atmosphere, but to unaddressed simmering resentment that would have lingered beyond our car ride. So I pressed on, all the way until we got to Seattle.

When he accused me of silliness, I offered what I thought was a detailed and thoughtful description of how I thought things might go under his proposed system. When he accused me of disingenuously demanding that every minor detail be worked out in advance to stifle a basic and obviously good shift that needs to happen, I told him that this was my attempt to really put my imagination to work, thinking through the implications of an idea with which I was not entirely familiar. When I simplified my concern in order to deal with his objection that I was overthinking things, he told me that I was painting an oversimplified binary.

Emotional Honesty

It seemed like nothing could please him, and when we got to our destination, I finally told him so. I said in as kindly a way as I could that I love him, respect him, and was only holding this conversation because it’s clearly an important part of his life, and that while it’s OK for him to feel how he feels and think what he thinks, I felt like he was treating me with contempt, and that it seemed like he was trying to shut down questions. I told him that if someone was proposing a massive change in our social system, I would want to understand the details. For me, the evidence that our present system is working tolerably well is all around me, while this proposal is all on paper. It makes sense to me that we would ask for considerable thought and detail before accepting such a wholesale change.

He explained that for him, his anger over the state of American and world politics has been growing over the last few years. To give an example, he explained that his visceral reaction to hearing liberal arguments against socialism is about as automatic and intense as our reaction to personally-directed racial prejudice ought to be. He doesn’t like how intensely angry he gets, but finds it impossible to speak neutrally about the topic. He has lost faith in rational debate as a way to change minds, and hears so much pro-capitalist argumentation that he feels is disingenuous that he finds it hard to believe it could be coming from a place of sincerity. He knows that there’s a big difference between being wrong and being bad, but he feels that the harm inflicted by capitalism is so great that it tends to obscure the difference on an emotional level.

How He Feels

It helped me understand the bind that he finds himself in, even though I disagree with his economic opinions. He experiences a Catch-22, where nobody will change their minds (or even listen) if he speaks neutrally and rationally, but they’ll dismiss him as a crank if he gets heated. It’s not evil to be wrong, but the harm he perceives in the wrongness around him is so great that he feels morally obligated to point it out, in terms that are strong and direct enough to be potentially offensive. And that itself is an emotional dynamic that is so difficult that it makes it extremely hard to find spaces in his relationships with others to lay it out for other people. My perception was that this seems isolating, although he did not confirm or deny that.

He then offered that if we were to discuss this topic again, it would actually help him keep the tension down if I felt like I could use the same kinds of rude speech to fire right back at him.

How I Feel

I was able to explain that for me, adopting a neutral and rational approach on a topic like this is both a moral duty and an emotional defense mechanism. With a topic this big and important, I feel it’s important to be able to look at it from all sides over a long period of time, and to bring as rigorous a scientific approach as we are able to as a society.

This is one of the topics that has really failed to generate a Kuhnian paradigm revolution with time; there might be a mainstream consensus of capitalist economists, but there are still plenty of people and countries and economists who believe in varieties of socialism, and that’s not just because the old guard hasn’t died yet. Since both sides have a great deal of scholarship behind them, and I’m not an expert, it makes the most sense to choose the argument that makes the most sense, but also leave great room for amicable differences. By contrast, he feels that you’ve got to start by understanding that people simply argue whatever side is in their interests. The first thing to do is pick the side of the victims of injustice, then determine which economic system is primarily looking out for them, and then adhere to that side.

I also told him that when I speak even slightly rudely to people, I immediately become intensely anxious that I’ve upset them, and shut down both socially and intellectually. Furthermore, my attempt at neutral rationality is not a strain or some “elevated tone” for me, but is rather my default state where I feel most natural and relaxed and happy.

Hope for the Future

After talking about that for a while, we were able to see that knowing these things about each other might help us have more open and agreeable conversations with each other in the future. He might feel less of a need to clam up about politics, since he knows that if he comes across very strongly with me, I’ll understand where it’s coming from. I’ll understand that if he gets very heated, it’s not personally directed at me, but is rather an expression of his frustration with the system. And we will hopefully be able to weave in a discussion about how the dynamics of the conversation make us feel, as well as discussing the issues themselves.

Moral and Political Dynamics

This experience helped me shift away from either a “politics is the mindkiller” perspective or a hope that “political conflicts between people with good relationships can be resolved through patient, rational engagement.” Instead, I had to acknowledge that, just as there is no voting system that can possibly achieve all our aims, there is no approach to morality, and therefore economics, that can achieve all our moral aims. Despite that, people will feel intensely passionate about their fundamentally intuitive moral framework. Adopting a neutral, rational approach or a passionate, intense approach to debate can both seem frustrating and disingenuous. Both have their uses.

Conclusion

If the goal is to understand each other, we’ll need to have greater tolerance for our different valences around how we communicate. On some level, even the strongest attempts at holding dialog can easily come across as intensely threatening - not because they’re threatening to demolish your poorly-thought-out ideas, but because they seem to be using neutrality to smother the moral import of the issue.

In order to overcome that dynamic, the only hope is to be able to honestly express how those tense conversations make us feel. We have to be articulate about why we prefer our particular way of speaking, and extend appreciation and sympathy to the other person. If we cannot find common ground in our intellectual beliefs, we can find it in telling the other person that we love them and are doing our best to connect with them, and creating the space for trying to understand not why we disagree but why we’re hurting each other and how to stop.

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Thanks for sharing!

You put quite a lot of effort into being reasonable and not antagonising your brother and it looks like you did a great job! In heated discussions like that, especially with family members, I'd recommend trying out NVC (Nonviolent communication).

Can't help but give you one example: "I finally told him ... [that] ... I felt like he was treating me with contempt". That might get perceived as an accusation or a judgement. I'd rephrase it (oversimplifying) as "I don't feel understood, could you give my points some more consideration please?" (asking to repeat back your points could also help).

I don't think there's any science behind NVC but I find it pretty helpful in situations like that.

Thanks again for the post!

I've reworded this reply about 5 times now, and I'm not sure why the words are proving slippery.

Basically, my experience with NVC and other such frameworks is that they most often get offered to people who are already working hard to communicate well. Quite naturally, since they're probably receptive to help in that effort and interested in analyzing their conversational dynamics in detail. Unfortunately, it's the people who lack good communication skills who probably need NVC. When the people who are already careful communicators are also receiving the most advice about improving their communication style, the result can be self-blame, self-stifling, and dysfunctional levels of indirection and softening to the point of fundamental dishonesty.

I need to remember that intellectual conversations are also highly emotional and relational. Questioning a person's ideas can feel like a personal attack. Making a strong argument can shut a conversation down. A debate can't be kept relaxed through the one-sided application of rationalist techniques. It has to be a shared language or implicit agreement.

I think the same is true of NVC. If only one person's doing it, it's not going to work very well. It takes two. Some of my best memories are of conversations that took place between myself and somebody else schooled in NVC or something similar. Some of my worst are of applying NVC or similar techniques in a situation where the other person is used to getting their way through domineering or abusive behavior.

The benefit of NVC/rationalism in situations like that is that they help you get away clean. You don't escalate your own language or say equally stupid things. That doesn't mean they'll look at you any better - they may well invent an even worse interpretation of your behavior to justify their own abuse. But by consistently applying these techniques to a healthy degree, you'll start to perceive yourself as a kind, level-headed person who doesn't get sucked into other people's schticks as easily. This builds confidence and dissolves guilt.

This in turn makes it easier to be honest about what happened with an intimate companion or therapist. Having the opportunity to look at the situation through your friend or therapist's eyes builds wisdom that can be applied to the larger dynamics at play. It's a virtuous cycle.

I think the same is true of NVC. If only one person's doing it, it's not going to work very well. It takes two. Some of my best memories are of conversations that took place between myself and somebody else schooled in NVC or something similar. Some of my worst are of applying NVC or similar techniques in a situation where the other person is used to getting their way through domineering or abusive behavior.

Hm. My experience is the opposite. I’ve found the most use in NVC type communication in cases where the other person is getting quite violent, as it can be remarkably disarming to see through the threats and care about the hurt that is driving the person to make them. It can also make it quite difficult for people to continue justifying their domineering and/or abusive behavior to themselves and others, if that’s what they’re doing.

My model of NVC is that’s useful in the way that neutron moderators can be useful. There’s a certain “gain” by which the “violence level” of communications are amplified after being expressed and received, and then having the response expressed and received. If you get multiplied by a number greater than one after going around the loop, things will melt down or explode. If one person is both interpreting and responding uncharitably, the other party is going to have to shoulder more of the burden to “moderate neutrons” and be extra clean in their communications so as to not escalate or allow for escalation. Additional effort to communicate nonviolently is going to make the most difference in the cases where you can actually cross unity. If you’re well below one to start with, then there’s no need. If you can’t get below one even with effort, it’s a bit futile (and therefore frustrating/discouraging).

You seem pretty aware of the failure mode of trying to use neutrality/rationality as an emotional defense mechanism, and how reaching for tools like NVC out of these motivations can lead to stifling of the important emotions that need to be expressed (which, interestingly, necessarily leads to misapplication/cargo culting of the tools). Do you think that could be behind your difficulties in getting good results with NVC in the “one sided” cases? Also, to me, your conversation with your brother looks like a perfect example of using NVC with someone who presumably isn’t trained in NVC to transform things from where they were coming off as domineering/abusive to one where you two are clearly on the same side and working together. Do you conceptualize it differently?

Great thoughts. I share the "neutron moderator" concept of NVC.

NVC-like practices have definitely produced de-escalation in many cases. In retrospect, I perceive that it may have made the other person feel ashamed of themselves for being insulting or cruel, and having that be met not with silence or aggression, but with an honest expression of hurt.

In some cases, that has led to an extended conversation in which those feelings could be processed further, as with my brother. I count this as a successful application of NVC. That's why I felt it was not quite fitting for Alexey Lapitsky to suggest that I may have come across as judgmental or accusatory, and recommend NVC as a solution - although I appreciate his input.

However, in other instances, that moment of NVC honesty led directly to either explosion (screaming, cursing, threats, accusations) or an uncomfortable end to the conversation. Probably I could have done more in situations where the conversation just petered out uncomfortably. I could have intentionally brought up feeling like I wanted to talk more at a later time, for example.

In the "explosion" cases, it's honestly associated with one figure in my life. There is a lot of love there, but also an awareness of a high capacity for dishonesty, self-deception on their part, false memories, and inappropriate recruitment of me as their confidant. I therefore eventually decided simply to energetically shield myself, practice distancing myself from their schticks, and finding ways to sooth or divert them prior to a blowup for the sake of my own comfort.

Probably it is memories associated with this explosive figure in my life that lead me to struggle with continuing to process relational discomfort with other people who'd be more receptive. Thanks for pushing on that point. I hope I'll be able to improve my other relationships with that in mind.

Beware, starting as an irrational socialist, one might end up as a far left Socialist for e.g. Maoism. (My experience)

Are you the Maoist, or someone you know?

I don’t see my brother as irrational. I see him as thinking rationally from a different set of premises, and morally fired up about the conclusions he draws.