What We're Reading: Conflicted by Ian Leslie

Abi Dauber Sterne and Robbie Gringras
November 29, 2022

Part of our work developing a pedagogy of argument has been reading widely in related fields. As we read, we hope to occasionally share some of what is salient for us at the moment. Our goal is both to help us clarify our own thinking, and to invite others to share their thoughts and experiences with us.

But before we start, a few words on how we choose what to read. Not surprisingly, we started by asking friends and experts in related fields what they’ve read and what’s been most influential for their ideas and projects. Very quickly we realized that we’re not drawing from one clear field, and so our reading is broad and multidisciplinary at the moment. We’re reading in the field of education, including the subfields of character education, deliberative education, and more. We’re dabbling in a little bit in cognitive science and psychology. And, of course, we’re reading literature from the world of conflict transformation and negotiation. 

While we won’t provide you an exhaustive list of everything we’re reading, or even full summaries of some of what we’ve read, we’ll try to share some of the nuggets we’re gleaning from different and overlapping fields. So, here goes, our first installment:

Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes, by Ian Leslie (2021) 

In this very readable book, Leslie provides countless research-based reasons why arguments of the right kind are critically important in nearly every aspect of life: successful marriages, thriving companies, social interactions, and more. He acknowledges that arguments can be difficult, but insists that they are crucial. In his own words:

"Overcoming our difficulty with disagreement cannot entail avoiding it. Instead, we need to change radically the way we think and feel about it. Conflict isn’t something that humans fall into now and again by accident. It’s a crucial component of life – literally so. Cells and organisms survive by exposing themselves to low doses of toxins. That enables them to learn about the ever-changing environment in which they live, so that when a potentially fatal dose of the same toxin comes along, they’re better prepared to cope with it. Human relationships are similar – living things that need conflict in order to survive and flourish."

Leslie also gives a lot of practical advice, tools and tips for having the right kind of arguments. Here are just a of the few ideas that he shares:

  • “Humor can be an important safety valve for conflict, a way of acknowledging difficult issues in a way that unites the participants through laughter rather than dividing them in bitterness.”
  • “Unarticulated emotion is like an unexploded bomb, and naming it somehow defuses it.”
  • We often want to correct or show someone that we’re right in an argument. This is called the “righting reflex.” “By resisting the righting reflex, and actively listening, you send the signal that you’re interested in learning, not dominating. That relaxes them, which relaxes you.”
  • Ask the right questions. Leslie explains, “‘Can you tell me more about why you believe that?’ is different to, ‘Why do you believe that?’ in a subtle but significant way.”
  • “Get curious. The rush to judgment stops us listening and learning. Instead of trying to win the argument, try and be interested – and interesting.” 
  • “Mistakes can be positive if you apologize rapidly and authentically. They enable you to show humility, which can strengthen the relationship and ease the conversation.”

Leslie has much more to say, and his work is great for most people interested in this field, but it’s a particularly great book if you’re just getting interested in any kind of shared discourse, negotiation, conversation-related work.

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