A reader asked:
When I’m around people who disagree with me, I have trouble remembering that my own thoughts and opinions are valid, and I start thinking I must be wrong about whatever they disagree with me about.
Do you know any ways of getting more confident about disagreeing with people?
To an extent, it’s a matter of practice.
Learning to distinguish between what you think and what others think depends on a few different skills. Some of them will likely take time and practice to acquire.
Some thought about what to work on:
It can help to get into the habit of noticing when your opinions change suddenly. If you’re susceptible to excessive influence by other people, it’s likely that this happens way more than you realize. Even just noticing it can make it easier to tell what’s your opinion and what’s someone else’s.
Eg, let’s say Susan and Jane are eating out together, and they’re looking at the dessert menu:
- Susan: I want chocolate ice cream.
- Jane: Chocolate is a disgusting flavor and it’s way too high fat. Raspberry smoothies are a million times better.
- Susan: Ok, that does sound better. I’ll order that.
In that instance, Susan wanted chocolate ice cream, then suddenly changed her mind when Jane said it was bad. If Susan does this a lot, she may not even have noticed that it happened. Noticing this kind of sudden opinion change could help Susan to realize when it’s happening against her will.
That leads to another skill that can help: Remembering the question “Why?”:
If you just changed your mind suddenly, why did it happen?
- Did someone say something you found persuasive?
- If so, what?
- Are you responding to the force of someone else’s personality?
- Are you afraid?
- Did you hear a new idea that sounds like it might be right?
- Do you need time to think about it?
- (It’s ok to not know right away.)
Asking other people “Why?”:
- If someone says something, you don’t have to agree
- And you don’t have to assume they have a good reason
- If they’re saying something that is your business, it is ok to ask “Why?”
- (Sometimes it isn’t your business and “Why?” might be a rude question. Eg, if someone says that they feel sick when they drink milk.)
- (But if it’s something like: “Republicans are evil”/“Democrats are ruining America”, “Why?” is a completely ok question.)
- Getting in the habit of asking for reasons can help you to understand and to think for yourself
- Some other ways to ask for reasons: “What makes you say that?”, “Can you say more about that?”, “I hear a lot of people saying x, but I don’t really understand why they think that… Would you be willing to explain?”
Remembering that it’s ok to need time to think about things:
- Sometimes you hear a big idea or an unfamiliar perspective and it makes things feel different
- Even just knowing that someone thinks something can make the world seem different
- (Or meeting someone who thinks something)
- That can feel really weird and confusing or disorienting
- That’s ok. It’s ok to be disoriented and need time to think. Some words that can help (either by saying them or thinking them to yourself):
- “I never thought about that before.”
- “I never thought about it that way before.”
- “That’s interesting.”
- “I’ll have to think about that.”
- “Thank you for telling me that.”
- “This has given me a lot to think about.”
- (Sometimes it feels like people are asking you to immediately agree with them when what they’re really asking is for you to listen to them. Saying one of these things can help in that situation.)
Paying attention to fear
- Sometimes people are afraid to disagree with someone else’s strongly held opinions
- Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid someone will hurt them
- Sometimes that’s because they’re afraid doubting someone would make them a bad person
- Sometimes it’s both
- It’s actually ok to think for yourself. Reflexive agreement out of fear doesn’t help things.
- Even when there’s a clear right side and wrong side, it’s *still* important to think for yourself and understand things
- Agreeing reflexively won’t get you the kind of understanding you need to meaningfully be on the right side of an important issue
- (And you can’t know what side that is without thinking about it, anyway)
- Thinking about it until you understand will make your agreement much more meaningful (and actionable)
Paying attention after the fact to what you think:
- Some people have personalities that loom very large
- Some people are very good at sounding right
- It can be very hard to tell what you think in the presence of these people
- Sometimes it may be hard to tell what you think in the presence of other people
- The effect tends to wear off after you’re away from them
- If you’re having second thoughts after you’re away from someone, take those second thoughts seriously
- Sometimes you will have really good reasons
- (And even if you ultimately end up agreeing with them, it was *still* important to take your second thoughts seriously so that you can understand for yourself)
- If you know that you have that reaction to someone, try to avoid agreeing to anything binding in their presence.
- It’s ok not to be sure what you think
- It’s ok not to be sure what you want
- Saying “maybe” can be really powerful.
- If you get pressured into things a lot, it might help to default to maybe
- It’s usually a lot easier to say “Maybe”, or “I need to think about that” than it is to say “Yes”, and then “I thought about it and I changed my mind”.
Journaling or blogging can also help:
- If you write things down, it can be easier to track changes in your opinion
- It can also be really helpful as a way of processing and figuring out what you think
- (Tumblr *can* be good for this, but it can also attract hostile attention that makes thinking for yourself harder. Sometime more private like Livejournal or Dreamwidth might be better.)
Another thing that can help is paying attention to how people are treating you:
- Are there particular people you’re afraid of contradicting?
- If, so, why?
- Do they treat you badly when you contradict them?
- Do they treat others badly in your presence?
- Do they spend a lot of time aggressively mocking people for not understanding, for disagreeing, or for asking questions?
- If a lot of people in your life act this way, thinking for yourself can be really hard.
- Seeking out people who treat you and others better can help a *lot* in making it possible to figure out what you think.
- Not everyone with passionate opinions or commitments is a jerk
- (Related: It is entirely possible pursue justice and other important causes without being horrible to everyone who disagrees with you or has an imperfect understanding or things.)
Learning to hold on to your thoughts and sense of self is going to be hard at first. Realizing that it’s going to be hard can make it more possible. (Especially since some people are really, really skilled at making people feel that their thoughts are invalid.)
As you get more experience intentionally paying attention to what you think, it gets easier. It will still be hard and confusing sometimes, but it won’t be as hard and confusing all of the time.
Short version: It is important to think for yourself even when you’re uncomfortable or others don’t want you to. There are a lot of reasons this can be hard. There are some skills that can make it easier. Scroll up for concrete suggestions.