The benefits of constructive confrontation

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Being nice and treating each other with respect does not mean only saying what others want to hear. Harmony and cooperation is created by honest communication.

This post is about constructive feedback, and how important honest exchange is in every aspect of our lives. Avoiding open disagreement, hiding things away or pretending to be on the same emotional and intellectual plane when you are not, causes tensions and hurtful feelings; the opposite of what we actually intend.

In the short video below, the speaker, Bo Seo, argues that openly disagreeing with each other instead of pretending to be on the same level leads to richer human relationships.

This topic can be supplemented by pages from the chapter on candor in the book about Netflix’s company culture: No Rules Rules (summary of the book’s main points under link).

Pre-listening/pre-reading vocabulary

Match the words with their definitions

to seek outboogeymanpetty
to conjure updivisiveposture
overtlyto grin and bearlest
to rock the boatvulnerabilityimpoverished

1. to disturb the status quo or go against rules or conventions

2. to obtain, receive or create from sth else

3. search for

4. state of being easily hurt or damaged

5. having lost something (e.g. money, food; a component or ingredient) rendering someone poor or sth depleted

6. to endure a difficult or disagreeable situation without good humour

7. having a quality that divides or separates

8. lack in taste or flavor; also: lack of strength or vigor

9. openly; publicly

10. create or produce seemingly magically

11. imaginary monster to frighten people, especially kids

12. narrow-minded, small-minded; insignificant

13. the way a person holds their body; attitude or social or political position s.o. takes towards an issue or person

14. a ferocious, large, destructive fire

15. in order that … not (happen)

Transcript of Bo Seo’s talk

Why you should live an argumentative life | Bo Seo

Why you should live an argumentative life | Bo Seo – YouTube

So, in this time of extreme polarization, the impulse to seek out agreement can feel pretty attractive. And this is the rhetoric of, remember, there is no red America, no blue America. This is the unifying rhetoric of focusing on all of the different things that we have in common rather than the things that bring us apart. The force of that argument derives not only from what we can do when we focus on the agreement between us, but I think also from the shadow that lurks, which is disagreements can be really destructive.

And so, part of the appeal of that unifying logic comes from conjuring up the boogeyman of what disagreement can be. At least we can have agreement that’s a little bit thinner, maybe a little bit blander, just having to do with us being generally human or living in the same place. But it’s better than the alternative of divisive and painful disagreements.

So, Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, took a pretty pessimistic view, not only of disagreements, but the kinds of people we become when we engage in disagreements. We become petty, we become defensive. He believed that these petty disputes can grow into a kind of a conflagration that brings down not only relationships, but also nations. And this was a man who lived through periods of war. And so he saw the destructive force that arguments can be. He concluded that the appropriate response was to take on a posture of civil silence towards one another. That we wouldn’t engage in these disagreements. That we would as much as possible try to grin and bear to tolerate one another’s differences and not to disagree about them overtly, lest the disagreements grow into a state of conflict that none of us can control.

And the honest truth is I felt the force of that wisdom in my day-to-day life when I was feeling like I didn’t have a voice, or when I was feeling like my welcomeness in a place was kind of conditional on me not causing too much trouble or rocking the boat. When I’ve been through periods in my life where I’ve felt that kind of defensiveness or vulnerability, I often did have the thought it would go a lot easier if we could focus on our similarities and to minimize as much as possible the differences.

The problem with that is our commonalities are only one part of the fullness of our relationship with one another. And part of what makes the encounter between two people meaningful is not only all the things that they share, but the differences. And that variety is a source of challenge. It’s the way in which we piece together truth from different perspectives. It’s the way in which we go beyond ourselves, learn something new, reach for something new. A life built just around agreement is an impoverished life because it requires taking away and ignoring so much of the richness of human relationships and the encounters they give rise to.

Comment: One reason for our discomfort with argumentative confrontation might lie in the words and phrases we use when talking about disagreement or arguments. Much of the language involves metaphors of physical conflict and war. The terms we use are laden with negative emotional references instead of being factual and devoid of evaluational connotations. The ‘chicken or egg’ question comes up, as often with conceptual language: Do we phrase arguments into war and violent fighting, because we feel so uncomfortable with disagreeing? Because we feel personally attacked when someone doesn’t agree with us? Or is the ‘war metaphor’ for discussions a reflection of an antagonistic, volatile culture? (see Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By)

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