Facts Don’t Solve Fights

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By now, deep into the most polarizing year in recent history, you’ve probably had a few clues. You’ve tried to respond to anger and vitriol with facts. You attempted to battle ignorance with evidence. You’re hoping you can change someone’s might with a snazzy graph.

But by now, you’ve realized that facts don’t solve fights.

Because opposing facts and information aren’t the cause of the conflicts you face. When you’re grappling with different facts, it will feel more like problem solving, not fighting.

As soon as the source of the issue is something buried beneath the facts in the realm of conflicting values and motives, that’s when it will start to look, feel, or smell like a conflict. In that case, the facts are just a diversion your opponent creatively curates to justify how they feel and what they believe.

Did that sink in? “Facts are just a diversion your opponent creatively curates to justify how they feel and what they believe?”

And yet we jump on facts, flailing to find falsehoods that will prove that we’re right and instantly convince the person on the other side to abandon their baseless argument.

But if it’s not about the facts, that’s unlikely to work. And, to be clear, it’s not about the facts.

It’s understandable if you’re angry that your colleagues, friends, and crazy uncle Larry would try to bullshit you by sharing only the facts that support their case. But it’s not actually you they are trying to deceive.

Years of psychology research suggest that they are actually deceiving themselves — the first and most important audience for their elaborate rationalizations. As humans, we want our behavior to make sense, so we concoct great stories about why we do what we do.

We do and say what we believe and then try to make our actions and positions seem rational by assembling facts that justify them. Neuropsychologist Michael Gazzaniga describes it as trying to keep your story coherent. You do what you feel or believe, then collect the facts to create a narrative that’s consistent.

Humans act based on beliefs and feelings. We use facts to make us feel good about how we feel. Recognizing this, fully internalizing this, is the only way to get beyond unproductive conflict and to get to the real discussions — the ones that root out what the person believes, how they feel, and why. The dialogues that lead somewhere; through the issues and toward a mutually acceptable resolution.

We curate facts that make us feel good about how we feel.

That’s why the facts your opponent shares are not something solid you can grasp onto in an argument. If the first set of facts doesn’t work to convince you of what they want, there will always be other facts to try out.

Until you get past the facts to what the person really wants, you’ll continue to face a barrage of mostly deceptive information.

The next time you’re tempted to dispute someone’s facts, (at work, with Uncle Larry, or on Facebook) save your breath. Instead, get beneath the facts by asking questions to expose what they feel and what they believe. Facts won’t solve fights.

For more detailed instructions on how to get to the values underlying the argument, check out this video.

[1] Gazzaniga, M.S. “Your Storytelling Brain.” Big Think. Retrieved from http://bigthink.com/videos/your-storytelling-brain-2 .

Written by

NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor

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