How to tell someone they are wrong

I got  into an argument with a friend just yesterday. The topic was U.S. Foreign policy in the Middle East. While I do have strong ideas about this issue, so did my friend – who is a Veteran. We had a few strong exchanges and clarified our positions, in no uncertain terms. But after my friend said something along the lines of ‘You didn’t have to be so condescending,’ it occurred to me that I was  perhaps coming across as such, while not meaning to.

For those who know me, know that I tend to refer a few books in every ‘informed,’ conversation I have. It is an old habit and I believe it is better to base arguments in facts, opinions and ideas that have been well thought out, and often books have such reservoir of ideas. So, I make liberal use in referencing them. It helps that I enjoy reading and often have read a book that is at least tangentially related to any discussion at hand. Also, I realize that some people don’t take to this too kindly, thinking that either :

a. I am showing off that I have read these books

b. Pretending to know more than them

c. Being a pretentious SOB, just for the heck of it

In any case, it doesn’t help my cause. If my intention is to win an argument, then perhaps I had already won it. But the point of having informed discussions isn’t just winning arguments. It is also about genuinely reaching an understanding and helping the ‘other’ see one’s viewpoint. Towards this, I have often learnt that the best thing to do is to stop arguing.

In some cases, I have drawn back the aggressiveness and appealed to the person’s reason or higher intellect – assuming it exists.

When people are angry, defensive or plan excited, they don’t listen. And similar to yesterday’s experience, I have been in far too many situations where I have learnt that even if I win an argument, I may lose the person’s attention. So, better to tone down and try to reason, while keeping the other persons’ perspective in mind. IN other words, trying to be more empathetic.

So, that seems to be the lesson I learnt yesterday: The best way to tell someone they are wrong is not to tell them that. Rather, it is better to help them think through their position with more care and attention. For this, they must be empathetic to your viewpoint. For this to happen, you must tone down, relax and let them reach out to you, at their pace. Empathy is the name of the game.

I am still learning.

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