Imagining the Opponent You Want to Debate

There's an exercise in places like relationship counseling that is growing in popularity in which one is asked to imagine the best version of one's partner/family member/etc that one can when initiating a conversation--especially a tough one.

This exercise takes on the problem of self-fulfilling prophecies when walking into a conversation. Let's imagine there's a topic that gets us to fight with a family member whenever it's brought up: something like a family budget. We review the family budget and notice a common over-spend. We're about to confront the family member for over-spending, but we know how it's going to go: they're going to dig in and get defensive. 

Emotionally, we prepare for that defensiveness, and our emotions from past fights start eating at our minds. We approach the conversation with anxiety and frustration. 

It may be easy to see from the outside that our emotions and expectations are setting us up for failure: if we think it's going to turn into a fight, it's much more likely to turn into a fight.

Given how easy it is to do this to those we love most, it's probably no surprise at all that we do this to our political opponents, whether they're old frenemies or folks we just met at a party. It may even be the case that we get some pleasure out of old-fashioned unproductive righteous fury.  It can feel temporarily satisfying to get into a good shouting-fest with someone over a political issue, much in the same way it might feel good to "score a hit" in a worn-out, much-repeated argument with a loved one.

But we know there's a better way.

Ronnie and Tip were experts at being the opponents the other wanted to debate. 

Ronnie and Tip were experts at being the opponents the other wanted to debate. 

To solve this self-fulfilling prophecy problem in our family relationships, counselors suggest that we enter the conversation imagining instead what it would look like if it were caring, empathetic, and productive. One is asked to imagine one's relationship partner at their best, and imagine what a great conversation looks like, before having it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest thing that changes with such preparation is how we start the conversation.  Good prophecies can also be fairly self-fulfilling: if we imagine that we're going to have a really productive political conversation where everyone walks away having learned a bit, we're far more likely to do so. 

We're already quite familiar with the worst version of our political adversary. They're fond of oppression or subjugation, fond of people dying; they're prejudiced, they're dumb. We can picture that worst version in our minds really easily.

But here's something to consider: imagine your best friend or spouse--someone whose character and judgment you really trust--happened to have a political position that differed from yours. Could you imagine a rewarding conversation about that issue with them? If so, why? What makes them different? 

Just as when we're accustomed to fighting with a loved one, imagining conversing with their "best self" is more likely to bring about a productive dialogue, our fights with political opponents can benefit from similar treatment. 

So take a moment to imagine: Who is the political opponent you'd most want to debate? Who would teach you the most, and give you most enjoyment? What more nuanced version of an opinion might they have? What might their reasons be? What kinds of questions would they ask of you? 

Most importantly: how would you approach a political conversation differently to inspire this person to come out and play?

(Thanks to reader Scott for kicking off this thinking and conversation. We're considering folding it all into another book next year.)

1 Comment

Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.