The Emotional Man

The Emotional Man | Self Governance Project
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Are you an emotional or a rational person?

This may seem like an either-or question, but there’s actually only one right answer: All of us are (to some degree) emotional beings.

No matter how loudly we say we are ‘data-driven’, most of us are not.

To be driven by data and reason means that you are willing to challenge your current beliefs with new information. It also means that you also must be able to entertain the thought that your beliefs could be wrong.

However, when confronted with information that contradicts our closely held beliefs, we often get defensive or lash out. Our reason and intellect usually take a backseat to our emotions.

As Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, put it, ” The last thing to do is to try to argue someone out of a belief when they’re strongly committed to it emotionally, because what makes it so strong is the emotion attached to it, not the facts or the arguments that support it.”

Since everything in America today has seemingly become political, it has become increasingly difficult to talk about various subjects without one or either party becoming offended or upset. And to be clear, this does not only affect political opinions and dialogue. This struggle happens in business and professional relationships all the time. If we are to improve our lives and improve our society, we cannot continue down this path.

The purpose of this article is twofold: 1) rediscover how to talk to others, and 2) learn how to listen to others.

The Rider And The Elephant

Throughout history, philosophers have debated and postulated about which is greater- the passions or reason? In his book, The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt argues that philosopher David Hume got it correct when he observed “it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will never engage him to embrace sounder principles.”

Haidt contends that our minds are divided into parts- controlled processes (a rider) and automatic processes (an elephant). These controlled processes would include reasoning skills, and the automatic processes would include things such as intuition and emotions. The rider certainly thinks he is in charge, but when the elephant wants to go somewhere, there is little the rider can do.

Indeed, it is the same way inside our heads. When we are morally dumbfounded, we struggle to find post hoc justifications for those feelings. As Haidt says, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

Of course, Dr. Haidt focuses on morality and why people are divided in politics and religion. Although I am not a doctor in psychology, I believe these principles apply to most beliefs that we have about: health, education, family, finances, etc. But, then again, these topics have become increasingly politicized and polarized.

How To Talk To People

So if each of us has a large, emotional elephant controlling how we respond, how do we talk to someone about tough topics when they might disagree?

Talk to the elephant first.

In order to reach someone who might disagree with our point of view, regardless of whatever data or evidence we have to back it up, we must recognize that that individual is emotional. Instead of going into a discussion, guns blazing, we ought to bring the other person’s defenses down in a sincere way.

In his classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie admonished readers over and over to be friendly, smile, and to never tell someone that they are wrong. The goal when engaging with someone else should always be to convey warmth, respect, and sincerity.

The biggest problem with dialogue today in America is that we often go into conversations believing that the other person is our enemy. Or, if we find out that someone has different beliefs about politics than we do, we immediately get emotional and pass a moral judgment about who they really are.

However, we must remember that if we want to have a productive conversation, we need to first engage on an emotional level before diving into reason and logic.

As President Lincoln once said: “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”

How To Listen To People

Listening to people is probably more difficult than talking to people. Listening, especially when engaged in political or controversial conversations, requires a great degree of humility. It requires you to subdue your own thinking and pride (your own elephant), in order to give someone else the spotlight.

Listening is NOT being quiet while another person is talking and planning how you’re going to respond. Unfortunately, that’s how many of us “listen.”

As Dale Carnegie explains, “to be a good conversationalist, be a good listener.” You must be sincerely interested in what the other person has to say and ensure that they know that. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself (and the conversation) up for failure.

Not only must you seek to actually understand what the other person is saying, you also have to be open to the idea that your position might be wrong. There might be information that you haven’t considered.

In his book 12 Rules for Life, clinical psychologist and author Dr. Jordan Peterson argues that we ought to engage in conversations of mutual exploration, but that those conversations require true reciprocity from both parties. It is this desire for truth itself that will allow you and the other person to learn new information and to inform you. So, as Dr. Peterson suggests, “assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”

In Practice

These things are often much easier said than done, but the consistent practice of these principles will not only help you win friends and influence people, they will help bring down the intense rhetoric and outrage just a notch or two in our relationships and our country.

I’ve had many experiences where I have employed these principles and many where I left them by the wayside and engaged in the emotional, highly charged conversations that dominate our culture. You can probably figure out which times were productive and relationship building and which ones were destructive.

We need to move away from characterizing the other side as “stupid” or “ignorant” for not “having any evidence or data” for their opinions, because they feel the exact same way about us. We need to understand that we are all emotional beings and strive to treat each other as such- with respect and kindness. If we can do that, we’ll be better equipped to have a productive conversation and truly examine the evidence in search for the truth.

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