Persuasion—Stoicism and indifference—Solving people's problems
Ron LaFlamme: It's like you need both halves of the brain right, the Jobs and the Wozniak, the ying and the yang.
Richard Hendricks: Oh uhh, I think it's yin.
Ron LaFlamme: Yin? Hah. Like yin and yan?
Richard Hendricks: Nope... uhh, like yin and yang...
Ron LaFlamme: Haha no it's ying and yang, they're opposite.
—Silicon Valley (2014-2019)
Being Less Wrong
If you know me well, you may know I love to be right (and hate being wrong). I once corrected some poor girl in college about where Kevin Hart went to college. She couldn’t convince me I was wrong (I could’ve sworn he went to Temple). Naturally, in the spirit of learning how to re-think, I decided I should write a note about a few things I was wrong about. Why?
Investor Ray Dalio once tweeted,
"If you look back on yourself and don't think you were dumb then, you mustn't have learned much. So, if you think you're not dumb now and are not eager to find out how, you're not forward looking."
I wanted to figure out how I was dumb. So I could also change my mind and… you guessed it: be a little less dumb.
Was Wrong About…Persuasion
Cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider once quipped (love that word):
“Exhausting someone in argument is not the same as convincing him.” (1)
I’m just learning this lesson recently. As an analytics geek, my understanding of persuasion used to be purely logical:
You are wrong. Why? Here is reason X, reason Y, and reason Z. I am correct; change your opinion, other human.
I wasn’t quite that rigid, of course. But what I didn’t realize is that most people become highly defensive when they are barraged with an onslaught of such logic, no matter how meticulously correct it is. Overwhelmed with cognitive dissonance, they often become more entrenched in their existing viewpoint. Why should I give in to this arrogant bulldozer?
Research shows that a more effective method for persuasion is a technique called motivational interviewing. Without going into too much detail, motivational interviewing essentially focuses on listening to the other person and posing thoughtful questions that can motivate them to change their mind on their own.
Motivational interviewing is employed by the “vaccine whisperer” (as he’s called in Adam Grant’s book Think Again), Dr. Arnaud Gagneur. He is an expert at holding thoughtful discussions with new parents who are afraid / unwilling to vaccinate their newborns. He doesn’t spew facts at them or chastise them for not wanting to vaccinate. He focuses on asking open-ended questions about how they have made their choice, and he only clarifies some of the confusing myths of vaccination when the parents seem curious about it.
Often, the parents change their minds on their own, because Gagneur has not pummeled them with reasons and logic to make them feel ignorant or irresponsible.
Was Wrong About…Stoicism as an Excuse for Indifference
The main goal of Stoicism is simple. It’s essentially the practice of discerning what is within your control and not within your control, and only focusing on changing what you can control.
Stoicism is useful partially because most of us try to control too much of what we can’t. As a result, we often suffer anxiety and increased blood pressure over what amounts to, in the long-run, absolutely nada.
To approach life with a clearer, more centered mind, Stoicism focuses on cultivating a practice of acceptance. Acceptance that the relationship could not work, the flight will take-off eventually, the terrible weather at the party is nothing you can fix… you get it. As the Stoic Epictetus wrote,
“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will – then your life will flow well.”
Where I’ve gone wrong in the past is essentially trying to accept everything, even those circumstances I could have (and should have) actually changed. I conflated acceptance with meek compliance—or even indifference.
I’ve let certain things slide that I shouldn’t have. I’ve walked away when I should have stood up for myself. These were situations where some carefully crafted words and uncomfortable silence could have solved a problem for me. But instead, I pretended there was nothing I could do, and I just sat with the problem instead.
I’ve learned that Stoicism isn’t an excuse to turn away from certain problems and pretend they don’t exist.
Was Wrong About…Solving People’s Problems
I genuinely enjoy solving problems. Unfortunately, this perspective is often a hammer looking for nails. My friends don’t want me to solve their dating or career problems for them; they often just want someone to truly listen and sympathize.
Until recently, I thought listening in this manner was a waste of time. As a trained half-engineer (more on that another time), I’ve learned problems are designed to be solved. (At Drexel, we packed into 1000-seat auditoriums and solved them with pencil and paper on a piece of particle board for a desk).
But being too eager to solve other people’s problems is actually a form of neediness. You need to impose your usefulness on the other person in order to feel gratified or appreciated. This creates a burden not only on yourself, but on the other person too. After all, they likely want to solve the problem on their own, so they can legitimately learn.
The researchers Stephen Rollnick and Bill Miller have referred to this desire to solve another person’s problem as the righting reflex. They mention that listening and sharing helpful, thoughtful advice with the other person is typically a more helpful alternative than swooping in to immediately save the day.
Final Thoughts When I think about how often I’m wrong, I often get a bit defensive. That’s my ego getting uncomfortable. The ego doesn’t like when we’re wrong. And that can make it hard to learn from errors. This reminds me of one last story (from Matthew Syed's Black Box Thinking). (2) During an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a surgeon slipped on his latex gloves and began operating (unknowingly) on a patient with a latex allergy. The anesthesiologist in the operation soon noticed the patient was having an allergic reaction and politely asked the surgeon to change gloves. The surgeon…being reasonable and down to earth and all that… refused. Even as the patient’s allergic reaction worsened, he continued to refuse. How could he permit a non-surgeon to make him look incompetent? Eventually the surgeon gave-in and changed his gloves, but only when the anesthesiologist threatened to page the president of the hospital for an overrule. The patient lived, and tests later confirmed she in fact had a latex allergy. Had the surgeon not changed his gloves, the patient likely would have died. The surgeon’s ego nearly got in the way of a crucial, life-saving decision. We’re all wrong about at least some of our beliefs and decisions. And we’re often in the position of the surgeon. We have the opportunity to change our minds before we cause any serious damage. And sometimes the evidence is staring us right in the face. What might you be wrong about? Is it worth changing your mind?
References (1) We Learn Nothing: Essays, Tim Kreider (2) Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success, Matthew Syed (story from pp. 112—116)