Let’s use tools from creative thinking to discuss this conflict logically.
So, how do we engage our critics without performing a bunch of chest-thumping status displays (on both sides) that convince nobody, and raise our blood pressure for no good reason?
Sometimes, it’s clear that the person you’re talking to actually enjoys baiting you. In that case, walk away. Yell at them if you really need to, but then walk the hell away. There are people like that out there, and when you talk to them – whether about politics, or about plumbing – they goad you. Don’t bother wasting your time with them. (I say this from bitter experience.)
What about those who don’t actually want an argument as such, but who can’t avoid falling into all the negativity traps that we lovely, fallible humans accidentally set for each other?
I started to use some of my own advice from the workshops that I run about creative thinking and group brainstorming. They worked.
So I’ll share some of them with you here, and hopefully, if you use them, your next Israel/Palestine conversation will go more smoothly and be more productive, whether it’s with a card-carrying hater or with a reasonable person who has legitimate criticisms.
The quality of a creative conversation is less about the quality of your imagination or your ideas per se, and more about the quality of your communication habits.
Two geniuses can be working on an idea together, and if they constantly say “Yes, but” and kill each other’s ideas, they’ll get nowhere.
Meanwhile, two averagely-intelligent (or even averagely-stupid) people can be working on the same idea, and if they say, “Yes, and”, building on each other’s ideas, they’re going to get a lot further, a lot faster, than the two argumentative geniuses. It’s just the way things happen.
“Yes, and” is the mantra of comedy improvisers, who go up onstage with no script and have to create comedy and drama together under extreme pressure. The reason why it’s the mantra of improvisers is because it works.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re improvising a comedy show, writing an ad campaign or discussing a contentious political topic: the communication habits apply equally.
Yeshiva people say, “Yes but disagreement is vital – that’s how we do things in the yeshiva, we argue, as a way of getting to the truth.”
Yes, and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years and still can’t agree on anything. So, if you’ve got a few hundred years to pick a problem apart, then say “Yes but”, by all means. If, however, you don’t have quite so long, you can’t afford to argue impulsively: you need to keep pushing forward.
The real insidiousness of a “yes, but” conversation is that it rapidly stops being about the subject you’re discussing, and becomes a struggle for dominance.
Status displays fly around the room and people feel hostile, defensive and aggressive. They start patrolling each other’s vocabulary, looking for faults to pick out, denounce each other, and eventually go away nursing revenge fantasies. It’s incredibly tiresome, and not one single atom in this universe is better off after such a conversation than before.
We all do it, but that’s no excuse.
Even outside of heated political discussions, “Yes, but” is a recipe for disaster, while “Yes, and” gets results, fast.
I was working with a mixed group of Russian and Italian advertising people, and gave them an hour to work on a brief. When I came back into the room, they were arguing. So I asked them what ideas they’d had so far.
“Well… nothing”, they replied, heads down, looking physically ill and defeated by life.
“OK, well what are you arguing about?” I asked.
“Luisa likes the idea of a storm”, said a Russian, “and I think it’s stupid.”
“What do you like about the idea of a storm, Luisa?”
“I like that it contains the power of nature.”
“Ok, good start.” I turned to the Russian. “Is there anything you like about the power of nature? Anything at all?”
“Nu, maybe danger is interesting.”
“Great!” I said. “What do any of you like about the danger of nature?”
“It’s a metaphor!” said Luca, one of the Italians. “Like you can’t control it. But with this product you can be in control.”
“Superb!” I gushed, even though I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. “Who likes this idea of control?”
They all did.
In six minutes, they wrote a TV script that ended up being produced, with almost no revisions. And it involved a very scary storm.
It didn’t require any cleverness or originality on my part – hell, I didn’t even understand the brief very well. It’s just a procedure, which anyone can follow. That’s the power of “Yes, and”.
It’s all about finding a basis you can agree on, and then building out from there – shelving, for now, the things you disagree on, and continuing with the things you agree on.
If I could repeat that sentence without it looking like a mega typo, I would.
You need to be hyper-aware of your own communication instincts when you use a “Yes, and” approach, because it’s so easy to fall back into negative patterns. Most of us swim in a sea of negativity, without realising. When we commit to “Yes, and” then we suddenly realise that it actually takes a lot of discipline to be relentlessly positive. And it’s worth every ounce of effort.
Ask your conversation partner to figure out, with you, something that you can both agree on to start the discussion. It can be as basic as “people shouldn’t kill each other” – that’s a perfectly fine start.
Then, as you start to build on it and establish more things you can agree on, put them into three categories.
The first category is historical (or contemporary) facts, which of course can be checked. You should still only focus on them in terms of which ones you can both agree on without needing to check. Keep the “not yet agreed and not yet checked” facts to the side.
The second category is opinions/judgments. Again, focus only (for now) on the ones you can agree on, and park the others for later.
The third category is a kind of combination of the first two: vocabulary. If you can agree on the vocabulary you’re going to use, then you’ll save yourselves walking through a verbal minefield. Defuse the mines together, and then you can use them like stepping-stones.
Resist the temptation to judge the other person if you disagree on anything. Judge the material, not the person. Play nice with the other kids. Then, you’ll find that there are relatively few things that you really disagree on, and whatever they are, you can discuss them much more respectfully and with more good will. That means you can go deeper with your discussions, and have a more productive outcome. Who knows? You may even change someone’s mind. And, dare I say it, they might change yours.
I learned these lessons the hard way, after years of participating in silly arguments (and producing a few dreadful campaigns as a result).
They help me and my colleagues enormously. I hope they can help you too, somewhere along the line.
In Part 3 I’ll be outlining some specific creative techniques for getting people to conceptualise the situation from different angles, productively.