How Can We Discuss a Difference of Beliefs?

Long ago, I had a huge fight with my grandmother. She said something untrue. I told her it was untrue and I explained why. Her response was, “You have such a black-and-white view of the world.”

That’s true. I don’t believe in what we now call “alternative facts.” I call them “lies.” Notice that I said I don’t believe in them. More on that in a minute.

At the time, my father rescued me from saying any more by suggesting we take a walk. It took me a few laps around the block for me to cool off. I told him that I had the facts on my side. I even explained those facts to him. He said it didn’t matter. She had her own perspective and beliefs. Data was not going to change her mind.

That’s the problem with facts vs. beliefs. Beliefs do not require facts, data. A discussion, where one person believes something and another person believes something else needs a common ground for discussion. That common ground might start with both perspectives.

Although I am still convinced my grandmother was totally and incontrovertibly wrong, I am willing to concede she had her own perspective. That perspective is what’s useful to discuss.

I find that I can’t understand what other people say—especially if I think they are lying or are spreading a lie—unless I understand their perspective.

Here are some questions I have used to help me:

  • What have they seen or heard to have that perspective?
  • What in their background might have caused their beliefs?
  • Do they have mental models I don’t share that causes them to believe what they say?

Notice that I’m not discussing the literal “truth.” I often discover we don’t agree on what the truth is. Even though the truth is patently obvious to me! (That black-and-white thing again.)

Here are levels of disagreement:

  • We disagree on the facts. I think the sky is blue. Someone else thinks it’s pink. (Remember the Dress meme a while ago?)
  • We disagree on the meaning, the interpretation of the facts. If the sky is pink in the morning I think it will rain. If the sky is pink at night, I think the weather will be fine the next day. If you disagree with this interpretation even if we agree on the facts, we may have different beliefs.
  • We disagree about the significance of the meaning. I might not care if it rains. You might care greatly.

This is a picture of the Satir Interaction Model. Person 1 hears something (Intake) from Person 2. Notice that Person 1 might hear something different than what Person 2 said. Once we hear something, we make meaning of what we heard, we have feelings, feelings about the feeling, possibly defenses about what we heard, and we often have rules about what can say in return. All of those (invisible) steps create our spoken response. The same thing happens on the other side.

I often think about the Satir Interaction Model when we have knock-down, drag-out fights, as my grandmother and I did. I didn’t know about the model back then. I am more aware now.

When you hear people disagreeing about what you perceive as “facts” and they talk about their “beliefs,” you have the distinct probability of an interaction problem.

To apply this to politics, see Jonathan Haidt’s Ted talk, The moral roots of liberals and conservatives. He discusses their meaning, feelings, defenses, and possibly even commenting rules. It starts with their mental models about the world and how people might discuss things.

I do not want to discuss politics. I do want to discuss how we discuss our differences of opinions, our beliefs. That is the question this week: how can we discuss a difference of beliefs?

2 thoughts on “How Can We Discuss a Difference of Beliefs?

  1. Marsha Browne

    Great post, Johanna.

    The Jesuits maintain a tradition for conversation with people with whom they do not share beliefs. They’re trained in the seminaries that the first thing they must do in any conversation is “salvage the other person’s argument.” In other words, they must really listen, both for intent and for meaning, and find something upon which they can agree, using that as the starting point for discussion.

    I’m not a Jesuit (obviously), never been a Roman Catholic, and I’m not necessarily even a Christian, but I do believe that this is the best advice I have ever heard about how to engage with an open heart and mind into a discussion with “the other.”

    Now, how to put it into practice? It starts with me, I think.

    1. johanna Post author

      Marsha, lovely. I didn’t know that about the Jesuits. I was thinking about bringing empathy in here, but one main idea at a time! Yes, to put this into practice starts with me, too. We each need to own our side of the conversation before we can consider the other side.

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