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Conflicted Book Summary – Ian Leslie

What you will learn from reading Conflicted:

– The 9 rules of productive disagreement.

– Principles and techniques for navigating situations of conflict.

– The state of disagreement in modern culture and how conflict can be seen as an opportunity.

Conflicted Book Summary:

Conflicted is a fantastic book, it provides lessons on how to disagree well from world-class experts: interrogators, hostage negotiators, divorce mediators, diplomats and addiction counsellors.

If you’re interested in improving your communication skills and having more confidence when involved in conflict, then this is the book for you!


The current landscape of argumentation:

For most of our existence as a species, humans have operated in high-context mode. Our ancestors lived in settlements and tribes with shared traditions and settled chains of command.

Now, we frequently encounter others with values and customs different to our own. At the same time, we are more temperamentally egalitarian than ever. Everywhere you look, there are interactions in which all parties have or demand an equal voice.

Not only this but, humans have a highly evolved ability to discern a person’s intent from their eyes, posture and movement, the pitch and inflexion of their speech. Online, that context is taken away.

As Ian Macduff, an expert in conflict resolution, puts it, ‘The world of the internet looks predominantly like a low-context world.’ Meanwhile, we rely on conflict-resolution tactics evolved for the world of 200,000 years ago.


Modern workplace culture and hiding disagreement:

The modern workplace puts a great emphasis on getting along with colleagues and creating psychological safety. In the worst version of this, everyone feels compelled to nod along, suppress doubts and swallow awkward questions.

Different parts of an organisation should be in tension with one another and staff should discuss those tensions openly, rather than silently pursuing their own priorities. A culture that tacitly prohibits disagreement makes the organisation more vulnerable to petty office politics, errors of judgement and abuses of power. People around a table should feel not just able but compelled to speak up when they think something, or someone, is wrong.


We lack a word for productive disagreement:

Telling that we don’t have a good word for engaging in a non-hostile disagreement with the shared aim of moving the participants toward a new understanding, better decision, or new idea. ‘Debate’ implies a competition with winners and losers.

Argument comes tinged with animosity. ‘Dialogue’ is too bland, ‘dialectic’ too obscure. This linguistic gap is evidence of how unpracticed we are at productive disagreement.

Disagreeing productively requires a bond of trust: a sense that we’re ultimately working with, and not against, each other.


How we process friends and strangers differently:

Friends and strangers process new information about each other differently. Strangers pay close attention to it because it helps them form a picture of the other person. Close friends, who rely on what they already know about the other person, tend to discount the importance of new information about them. They don’t listen quite as hard because they don’t feel they need to.

It’s the same for romantic partners, once you think you’ve got your partner worked out, you stop noticing new information about them. You might even come to believe that you know them better than they know themselves. Yet, this often isn’t the case.


The opportunity of conflict:

‘Conflict provides us with information,’ says Nickola Overall.

“The way people respond to us in conflict tells us a lot about how co-operative they are, whether they can be trusted, what they care about.‘ Conflict in a relationship is not an unfortunate accident. It’s a way of learning about others, including and especially those we know most well.


We often ignore the role of negative emotions:

Michelle Russell agrees: ‘Psychology as a whole tends to undervalue the role of negative behaviours and emotions. They can be useful and adaptive. Sometimes you need to feel bad about yourself.’


Arguments happen at different levels:

When the participants are essentially in agreement at this relationship level – when each person is happy with how they think they are being characterised by the other – the content conversation goes smoothly. Problems get solved, tasks performed, ideas hatched.

When there is an unspoken disagreement at the relationship level, the crackle and spark of conflict disrupts the content conversation. One or both of the parties find it hard to focus on what they’re meant to be talking about because they’re engaged in an unspoken, unacknowledged struggle to elicit the other person’s respect, or affection, or simply attention.


Challenge and Threat States:

Challenge and threat states have different physiological markers.

In challenge states, the heart beats faster and also becomes more efficient, maximising the amount of blood it can pump to the brain and muscles. In threat states, the heart beats faster but it doesn’t pump more blood. Blood vessels in the heart raise resistance, constricting the flow. Hence the distinctive sensation of anxiety, of being agitated and trapped at the same time. Challenge states involve a measure of anxiety, too, but in a way that converts into physical and cognitive horsepower.


Reason as are argumentation function:

A pair of evolutionary psychologists called Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have offered an intriguing answer to this question. If our reasoning capacity is so bad at helping individuals figure out the truth, they say, that’s because truth-seeking isn’t its function. Instead, reason evolved to help people argue.

Mercier and Sperber are ‘interactionists’, as opposed to ‘intellectualist’ thinkers. For intellectualists, the purpose of reason is to enable individuals to gain knowledge of the world. But as we’ve seen, reason often seems to be used to entrench whatever we want  to believe, regardless of whether it is true or not. In the interactionist view, reason didn’t evolve to help individuals reach truths, but to facilitate communication and co-operation. In other words, reasoning is inherently social, and makes us smarter only when we practise it with other people in a process of argument. Socrates was on to something.

Looked at through the interactionist lens, confirmation bias isn’t something to eliminate; it’s something to harness. Under the right conditions, it raises the collective intelligence of a group.


Nine rules of productive disagreement:

What follows are nine rules of productive disagreement plus one golden rule on which all the others stand or fall. Since human interactions are infinitely variable, you should treat these rules (except perhaps the meta-rule) as provisional.


1. First, Connect

Before getting to the content of the disagreement, establish a relationship of trust.

2. Let Go of the Rope

To disagree well, you have to give up on trying to control what the other person thinks and feels.

3. Give Face

Disagreements become toxic when they become status battles.

The skilful disagreer makes every effort to make their adversary feel good about themselves.

4. Check Your Weirdness

Behind many disagreements is a clash of cultures that seem strange to each other. Don’t assume that yours is the normal one.

5. Get Curious

The rush to judgement stops us listening and learning. Instead of trying to win the argument, try to be interested – and interesting.

6. Make Wrong Strong

Mistakes can be positive if you apologise rapidly and authentically. They enable you to show humility, which can strengthen the relationship and ease the conversation.

7. Disrupt the Script

Hostile arguments get locked into simple and predictable patterns. To make the disagreement more productive, introduce novelty and variation. Be surprising.

8. Share Constraints

Disagreement benefits from a set of agreed norms and boundaries that support expression. Rules create freedom.

9. Only Get Mad on Purpose

No amount of theorising can fully prepare us for the emotional experience of a disagreement. Sometimes your worst adversary is yourself.

Golden Rule: Be Real

All rules are subordinate to the golden rule: make an honest human connection.


Principles for Conflict:


People don’t just speak, they express emotions:

When people speak, they aren’t just expressing  their ideas; they are, even more, expressing their emotions. And it’s the emotions that they really want heard. So I stopped listening to the man’s words and tried to listen for the emotions.


Combat your ‘righting reflex’:

Implicit in Miller and Rollnick’s critique of traditional addiction therapy was the uncomfortable suggestion that counsellors should question their own motivation. Their instinct to ‘fix’ the other person – to correct them or put them right – represented a desire to dominate the conversation, and the relationship. Miller and Rollnick coined a name for this instinct: the ‘righting reflex’.

The therapist’s first job, says Peters, is to understand what that feels like. The right attitude isn’t, “I must get this person out of their misery by showing them that they’re wrong.” It’s “I must understand where this person is coming from.”” That is, they need to start where they’re at.

Resisting the righting reflex requires humility and self discipline. Even when you know, intellectually, that telling someone they’re wrong can make things worse, the urge to do so can be overwhelming. Therapists who have been trained not to do this still struggle with it. The reason for that, suggest Arnold and Vakhrusheva, is that it’s upsetting to hear someone flagrantly contradict your own model of reality. Just like everyone else, therapists feel the need to push back, even when it gets in the way of helping the patient.


Look for others public Faces:

Suppose you are meeting someone for the first time – an employer who is interviewing you for a job, or your new tutor at university.

As you start talking, what impression of yourself do you want to convey? The sociologist Erving Goffman called this desired impression your face: the public image a person wants to establish in a social interaction.

Skilful disagreers don’t just think about their own face; they’re highly attuned to the other’s face. One of the most powerful social skills is the ability to give face: to confirm the public image that the other person wishes to project. You don’t need to be selfless to think this is important. In any conversation, when the other person feels their desired face is being accepted and confirmed, they’re going to be a lot easier to deal with, and more likely to listen to what you have to say.


Individuals as micro-cultures:

An individual is a microculture; we are all, each of us, a little odd. One way to think about any disagreement, then, is as a culture clash.


Watch your tone:

This is worth dwelling on. Tone is sometimes discussed as if it’s a secondary characteristic of human interaction. (‘Why are you worrying about tone? Focus on the substance.’) But tone is more important than content. It goes deeper than words. It is the medium through which we express the relationship we expect to have with  who we’re talking to.

Your tone efficiently communicates how you see yourself in relation to me: as more intelligent or less; as dominant or deferential; as somebody with whom I can be serious or playful. And as we’ve seen throughout, until people establish a mutually agreeable relationship, a disagreement is bound to go badly.


Techniques for conflict:


Label emotions to get them out in the open:

What happens,  when an angry person hears someone say, ‘I can see you’re furious about that?’

They often say something like, “DAMN STRAIGHT – and I shouldn’t have to tell you!” Then they relax. Once the emotion is on the table it’s easier for them to be less angry. It’s remarkable to watch.’


Summarise others thoughts:

Miller and Rollnick’s book pioneered a method of drawing out the patient’s thoughts, called ‘reflection’: responding to or summarising what the speaker says in a way that forms about what they mean (‘So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying . . .’). The a guess speaker can either accept the interpretation, or correct it; either way, they feel listened to, and empowered, while the therapist gains insight into how they think and feel.


Frame new information as intriguing:

Other than affirmation, you can also frame new information or new arguments in a way that intrigues them rather than putting them on the back foot.

As Daniel Kahan found, surprise – I didn’t know that, or, I hadn’t thought of it like that before – loosens up rigid beliefs. Displaying your own curiosity about the topic indicates that you don’t think you have all the answers and encourages them to feel curious too.


Flip the Script:

As the familiar script plays out, we find ourselves almost irresistibly swept along with it, playing our parts in a stale drama.

To stop this happening, mix things up – say what the other person isn’t expecting you to says agree on something unexpectedly, or switch topic for a while. You can vary how you say things as well as what you say: the language you use and the tone you deploy. It might be a note of humour or a touch of warmth, or even just something that doesn’t quite make sense. If you always have the argument in the kitchen or an office, find somewhere else to have it out.



Insights from The Change My Views Reddit Page:

Researchers scoured two years of the change my mind Reddit groups and found;

For instance, the factor most associated with successful persuasion was using different words to those used in the original post.

This is intriguing, because it implies that to change a view, you need somehow to reframe the argument in different terms, putting it in a fresh context. It links to another finding the researchers made: the use of specific examples really helps to change minds, as does the use of facts and statistics; the best recipe is a combination of storytelling and hard evidence.

A person’s view was more likely to be changed over the course of a conversation with a commenter, rather than by one devastating point. But if it wasn’t changed after five rounds of back-and-forth exchanges, it was unlikely to be changed at all.

The researchers also found that hedging’ helps. Arguments that included phrases like ‘it could be the case’ tended to be more persuasive than those that projected certainty. When a commenter signals with his tone that he’s not entirely sure of himself, the submitter lets their guard down. Weakness is power.