Humans are protective creatures. When someone calls us out on a belief, our first instinct is to become defensive. We end up alienating those who have challenged or questioned our beliefs.
Let’s imagine as a child you were taught that people get what they deserve, no matter the circumstance (also known as the just-world theory). You’re now an adult and your friend laments how unfair life can be. You pridefully say people get what they deserve. Your friend aggressively rejects that statement as false and proceeds to explain why your belief is wrong.
It’s game on. The two of you slug it out as if it was Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier in the Fight of the Century.
Defensiveness is a massive barrier to open dialogue. If we desire to engage in meaningful conversations, then we must learn to combat our defensive inclinations. Below are three strategies to become less defensive, and in the process, avoid an Ali vs. Frazier scenario.
1. Separate Your Beliefs From Your Identity
Identity, in simplest terms, is how you see yourself. Part of how you see yourself is dependent on the beliefs you hold. One could say your identity is dependent on your beliefs. Why is this problematic?
If you attach your identity to your beliefs, you’re putting a lot on the line. When your friend attacks your argument of a just-world, it feels as if he’s attacking your identity. This is why we hold on for dear life to our beliefs. When our beliefs are attacked, it feels as if our identities are being attacked as well. With this mindset, you will never concede a belief which has been dismantled because if you do, you’re giving up your identity. And no one wants to give up their identity.
The solution? Separate your identity from you beliefs. Therefore when your argument doesn’t hold up, your identity doesn’t fall apart. Denouncing your belief is not a death sentence to your identity.
2. Seek Truth In The Opposing Argument
“In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story”Walter Cronkite
The old adage goes that there are three sides to every story: your side, the opposing side, and the truth. If truth is what you seek, then you should be open and receptive to the counterargument. Apart from extreme circumstances, you can find truth in the counterargument, even if you believe that truth is surrounded by a pack of falsehoods.
Take the counterargument’s belief and combine it with your belief. This will bring you one step closer to the truth. Life isn’t black and white. Truth lies somewhere in the gray. And the only way to get to the gray is by identifying the truth that exists from all sides.
3. Check Your Ego
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid”Epictetus
When engaging in an argument, it may feel as if our pride is on the line. This is related to the first point — separate your beliefs from your identity. It’s also related to the fact you must simply check your ego. If you value being right over seeking truth, you’re in for quite a struggle.
The ego tells you that your personal truth is the absolute truth. The ego desires to be right, because it will affirm your intelligence, superiority, and whatever else you want to tell yourself. Unfortunately nobody possesses the absolute truth. Only by checking your ego can you open your mind to opposing ideas. Check the ego and away we go!
The three strategies previously mentioned will help lower your defensiveness. But once we lower our defensive tendencies then what?
Instead of defending yourself, pursue the truth. Much of what we believe to be true is either incorrect or incomplete. Therefore, go into every interaction with the intention of finding truth. We should pursue truth the same way we pursue the things in life we most desire. You will be too busy pursuing truth to even think about getting defensive.
Drop your defensiveness, seek truth, and forget the rest.
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