Connection across differences is a huge topic with many facets, we want to start with something that we see creates a lot of misunderstanding and suffering in interpersonal relationships – philosophical debates. So often, with your partner, you begin a conversation innocently enough. Then, without even meaning to, you hit on some kind of controversial topic and suddenly you are in a debate.
So often, these debates end in confusion, anger and even crying. Since relationship happiness is really made up of the day-to-day, having these kinds of challenging interactions, and especially if you have them a lot, can be really damaging to your relationship. We want you to take them seriously and learn how to have them well. We don’t think it is realistic to say, “We’ll just never debate again” because, as we said, you usually end up falling into these conversations. Instead, we want to help you do something different with them – we call it Connected Debating.
Before we offer you the steps to connected debating, we want to start with a little bit of background so you can have a better understanding of what usually goes wrong. Firstly, there is a pretty strong gender divergence in how men and women approach differences of opinion. So, if you are in a heterosexual couple, this can be the root of the problem.
Usually, when men approach a potential debate topic with other men, they are more likely to disconnect emotionally from it and think of it more as a game they are trying to win. Like chess or a video game, they are simply trying to take down their opponents ideas any way they can and, if their opponent’s ideas stand up to the challenge, they may then take them seriously. So, a man might hear the other person’s point and say, “That’s ridiculous, have you even looked at the statics on that?”
Usually, when women approach a debating topic with other women, they are generally more relationally oriented, and attempt to find common ground first and then make their point. Even if they don’t agree they might say something like, “Yes, that makes some sense, but have you heard about the recent study on…?”
When we try to explain this to men and women, men usually think women are being ridiculous and overly-sensitive, while women often feel like men are being disconnected assholes. In other words, there is a huge lack of empathy to the other person’s needs and experiences and a lot of judgement. To be empathetic with men, it truly can be fun to debate about something if you can keep your emotions separate or if you don’t feel like having a very heated argument will lead to unfixable disconnection. It can be exciting to bring up really good points and even change someone’s mind by winning.
Unfortunately, it often isn’t possible since it is actually quite rare for both people in a debate to be able to do this. We are emotional creatures, and, even if we are not particularly emotional about a topic, we might begin to get emotional if we notice our partners are getting upset, tense, sad, or angry. Second, debate touches on some very deep emotional needs which can be triggered.
For example, many people have wounds around their intelligence, their need to be listened to, or their feelings of abandonment. Any of these can be triggered – you might feel like your partner is talking down to you or treating you like you are stupid, you might feel like you are not being heard, or you might feel like your partner cares more about the topic at hand then about being in connection with you so you feel abandoned. It can be extremely unbearable to feel stupid, unheard, and disconnected from the person that you love at the same time, which is why debates can become an intimacy killer.
In order to have more unity, use the following tools and make sure that you have an agreed upon framework to use them. For example, you might check on them immediately and then, every 2-3 minutes, revisit and make sure you are still using them.
- Acknowledge You Are In It: If you start to get into a debate by accident, acknowledge that you are in one and reassure that you still want to stay connected: “Oooops, it looks like we are having a difference of opinion about public vs. private schools here, I really want to stay connected with you in this conversation.” If your partner’s love language is touch, see if you can keep some kind of contact or at least make sure you are looking in each other’s eyes some of the time.”
- See If It’s Personal: Check if there are underlying personal feelings that this topic is touching on, that might be skipped over if you just stay in debate mode. This requires you to be honest with yourself and vulnerable with your partner. “I realize that when we talk about whether or not porn promotes violence against women, it is really hard for me to separate the feelings of insecurity that come up when I think about you watching porn.”
- Listen to Your Partner: Make sure you take the time to really listen and take seriously what the other person is saying, even repeating it back to them, if you are not sure you are getting what they mean. Even if you don’t agree, see if you can have empathy for their point of view and how and why they might have come to it. Check in on your own personal histories and how they relate to your current opinions on the topic.
- Focus on Both Similarities and Differences: If there is something that the other person says that you really agree with, share that with them. Debates often turn into an emphasis on the differences and, it is possible that there are also places of overlap and agreement.
- Be Willing to Change Your Mind: If you go into a debate without being open to new ideas and ways of seeing then it is unlikely your partner will ever be willing to hear you either. Let got to being attached to being “right” or making the other person “wrong” and instead go with an attitude of collaboration and curiosity. Try thinking “what might I be able to learn from this person that I don’t already know?” Being open to learning, growing and changing is what keeps us all young and vital!