How do you push back against someone else’s criticism of something you love and appreciate?
Do you tell them that they’re “crazy”?
You’re not alone.
Back in May, I listened to a podcast conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant wherein they discuss Adam’s new book Think Again. (I’m about halfway through this book and I recommend it for those who like research-based explanations for why we are so dumb most of the time.)
I respect and admire both Malcolm and Adam and find their conversations together to be interesting on a few levels.
First, they come at problems with different lenses, and yet they treat each other with respect.
(Well, mostly Adam respects Malcolm and Malcolm also respects Malcolm, so it’s kind of mutual in a way).
Gladwell is a journalist who is excellent at taking research that is often dry and complicated and wrapping it into a story about why we are the way we are.
Grant is a scientific researcher who takes what we all assume is happening out in the world and tests that assumption through psychological research.
To simplify this: Adam is a researcher who wants to be a storyteller. Malcolm is a storyteller who loves to write about research.
These two different lenses make their conversations together fascinating.
If you listen to the podcast (linked above), you will notice that Adam Grant asks Malcolm if his recent book The Bomber Mafia, which is about people’s obsessions, might be something that hits close to home for Malcolm. Grant says this because Gladwell loves to run and running is an “obsessive sport.”
Malcolm rejects this notion, not just that he’s obsessive but the very idea that running is an obsessive sport.
His reasoning? “You’d have to be crazy to think that running is obsessive.” (Paraphrased.)
Now, I recognize that these are both smart individuals with a remarkable ability to analyze and articulate big, complicated ideas in ways that people can easily understand (that’s why they are often on the best seller list). I also recognize that they are entertainers who are trying to keep the conversation fun and engaging.
When I heard Malcolm say this though, I just thought, “really?”
Isn’t this the argument people use when they want to convince someone that their favorite athlete/actor/US President/store-bought cookie is the best?
It’s the lamest of arguments. And yet here are two intelligent thought-leaders basically arguing about whether the idea that running is obsessive is crazy.
Why should we care?
We are lazy thinkers, especially when it comes to defending what we love and appreciate. It’s so much easier to question the other person’s credibility than examine our own taste and opinions.
I don’t think anyone’s life depends on whether running is inherently obsessive.
The point is that Malcolm used that moment to avoid answering the question that Adam asked about his own obsessiveness. It’s a great way to deflect, but it doesn’t lead to better understanding. Rather than open up the conversation in interesting ways, it shut it down.
When we question the credibility of the other person, we may score a point in the room, but we don’t usually bring anyone closer to the truth. We certainly don’t learn anything about ourselves.
What can you learn from this?
Well, what if we allowed ourselves to question our beliefs?
What if instead of attacking the other person to make a point, we just talked about why we thought something to be true?
I used to love sports-talk radio and my favorite shows were the ones that talked about greatness. Could Babe Ruth play today and still be an exceptional star? Would Sandy Koufax be as good if he played today? I loved these conversations because they were fun and pointless. You got to share your knowledge of the game while at the same time learn to make a case for something that can’t really be proven.
These days, I hate these conversations and I’ve basically stopped listening to talk radio. It always seems to end up in a shouting match of calling each other crazy or an idiot.
There’s no nuance, no information and absolutely no vulnerability.
The winner tends to be the one who makes the other person feel dumb for having a different opinion.
From my point of view, this is a major problem with how we humans talk to each other.
We don’t take the time to share, to challenge and to explain.
We make it personal which keeps it safe.
I recognize that this has a lot to do with social media and how we consume entertainment these days. We all live in Jon Stewart’s world now of snappy come-backs and witty put-downs.
But you and I can try to do this differently. We can become more aware of our desire to shut the other person down, to destroy them rather than listen to their argument. We can be curious about what it is that we actually think about this and why.
We can be more willing to say that we like something without having to build a wall around it to protect it.
Try it and see what comes up for you. At the least you might learn something new about yourself and those around you. At the best, we might be able to turn back this trend of over-simplified, one-up-man-ship.
Maybe we can start to listen to each other for a change?