Argue Like a Teacher

Is is just me? Or are we all just shouting at one another these days?

Writing his BBC Futures column, Mindhacksblog contributor Tom Stafford suggests that a misplaced self-assurance persuades many of us to do the one thing we shouldn't when trying to win someone over to our side of a disagreement - enumerate the many reasons why we're right and they're wrong.

Throw in the easy accessibility of the social media megaphone and a few cherry picked bits of information, and those strongly held views devolve into casus belli. The problem, according to Stafford, is that we often think we understand how something works when in reality, we don't. 

The Best Way to Win an Argument:

Usually, nobody tests us and if we have any questions about them we can just take a look. Psychologists call this idea that humans have a tendency to take mental short cuts when making decisions or assessments the "cognitive miser" theory.

It's a phenomenon that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to teach something. Usually, it only takes the first moments when you start to rehearse what you'll say to explain a topic, or worse, the first student question, for you to realise that you don't truly understand it. All over the world, teachers say to each other 'I didn't really understand this until I had to teach it'. Or as researcher and inventor Mark Changizi quipped: 'I find that no matter how badly I teach I still learn something'".

Those who can mentally slip into the role of teacher get another benefit. According to research he cites, people who "provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues," which is helpful if thinking afresh is your goal.

There's nothing like being the teacher to demonstrate how little we really know.

But if you're not feeling so charitable, there's something devilishly satisfying about asking one's adversary to explain in some detail how something works - or might work - while patiently listening. Almost inevitably there will be a pause, a wrinkled nose, a pregnant pause.

Let it linger.

Stay curious.


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by LaVladina