Why do we get worked up in arguments and what can we do about it?

A look at why disagreements make us feel so threatened and three techniques to listen better during disagreements.
Hearing opposing views might evoke the same response as being attacked by a bear or a wild animal.
Hearing opposing views might feel like being chased by a wild animal. Painting by author

A few days ago we it was mid-summer here, and one could barely stand in the sun, and now it has been raining since a couple of days, the raindrops dripping off the lush green leaves. These overcast summer skies are a fine time to think about emotions – alternating between the relief of coolness, and longing for the sun. On that poetic note :D, let’s talk about listening to ideas we disagree with.

Why disagreements feel so threatening?

Think about the last argument or disagreement you had. Or a conversation where you were convinced that you are right and the other party is wrong. How did it feel? Did you start breathing really fast, your body bursting with the desire to interrupt or fight what someone is saying? Or maybe you wanted to run away. Or perhaps you went completely still, even holding your breath. Were you listening?
I love listening to people and yet can remember many instances when I stopped listening because something in me rang an alarm bell. For example, a participant in a study said something about gender equality which I strongly disagree with. They didn’t mean any harm to me, but were just trying to explain their point of view. And yet, I could feel my brain go blank, then my whole body tensed, and my breath quickened. At that moment, I was not listening. As user researchers, we are still people, we take our whole selves to our work.
Kate Murphy writes that hearing opposing views can trigger the same response in our brain as being chased by a wild animal. It activates our amygdala, the part of our brain associated with automatic responses to fear, and we want to either run, hide, or fight – the typical response to danger. All because someone said something – Imagine!
In such moments, our body goes into survival mode and we are unable to take in new information. This is harmful because complex conversations are necessary, this is how we learn new ideas or nuances of an idea we disagree with, as Amanda Ripley writes in her excellent article Complicating the Narratives.

How can we listen better during disagreements?

Hearing evolved as a way of sensing danger, so it is no wonder that listening can lead to such visceral reactions in us. And yet, listening to opposing views is necessary for us to learn and to flourish. How do we deal with this? One of the altUXR readers joked with me saying that listening almost sounds like therapy :D. And so it is!
We can encounter opposing views in many situations – feedback from our boss or colleagues, in a user study, in presentations. . . How do we listen in such situations? Here are a few suggestions:

Breathe deeply

Oscar Trimboli says that breathing deeply helps us listen better in all situations. For me, even paying attention to how I am breathing during a conversation already helps.

Become curious instead of angry

Kate Murphy and Amanda Ripley advise you to become curious instead of getting angry. Switching our brain to “I wonder why they are saying this” and asking them to elaborate activates higher-order thinking and helps calm our amygdala. This helps us listen better. Because often what someone is saying is less important than why are they saying it. Ask not “How dare they?” but rather “How did they get to this conclusion?”

An example

I lived in the US for a while and here’s a conversation with a young intern with views opposite to mine.
He: “I wouldn’t vote for democrats because I don’t want to pay high taxes.”
Me: “I am surprised that you are against taxes, US is a rich country, and you need roads, highways, schools, and public infrastructure, no?
He: “Well yes, I would pay state taxes but I am against federal taxes. Why should I pay for something that my state will never benefit from, while some other far off state will”.
I could see how it wasn’t the taxes themselves but where they are spent that bothered him. I learned the nuance in an opposing view and this is precious!

Using whiteboards for better listening

Karishma Jain, an altUXR reader, shared an example of using whiteboards to help teams listen better during disagreements. In the midst of disagreements or to avoid disagreements because of misunderstandings, she uses a whiteboard (also virtually) which can be seen by everyone to help people align.

Learning about my primal responses in disagreements has been a powerful realization for me. It helps me see that it is possible to sit through a conversation that contradicts what I know or believe and not die :D… and being curious might lead to more productive conversations rather than shutting down, interrupting, or walking away.

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