Step 4: Discover the Value of Diverse Perspectives

Why do this? Why take the time to listen to people and ideas that may seem not just wrong but offensive to you? Three reasons:

1) It will help you find the truth. The human mind is a natural lawyer, as we saw in Step 1. It’s great at finding evidence for whatever you want to believe, and also at discrediting any evidence that seems to threaten your current beliefs. This guarantees that you’ll be at least partially wrong on just about everything you care about – unless you have allowed your beliefs to be challenged by people whose internal “lawyers” have the opposite bias from your own. You’re likely to come out the other side of such challenges with a more nuanced view of the subject, and with better arguments to support your modified view. John Stuart Mill, in his classic essay On Liberty, explained the process like this:

“[T]he only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.”

2) It will help you become more persuasive. If you have a better grasp of the truth, and if you know how others think about complicated and contentious topics, then you’ll be much more effective and impressive in conversation with others. If you have not subjected your beliefs to challenge, you’ll come off as foolish and you’ll convince your opponents that your side doesn’t know what it’s talking about. The libertarian economist Milton Friedman extended Mill’s insights when he wrote about his time among politically homogeneous New York City intellectuals:

“In 1964 [in New York] … There was an unbelievable degree of intellectual homogeneity, of acceptance of a standard set of views complete with cliche answers to every objection, of smug self-satisfaction at belonging to an in-group. … The homogeneity and provincialism of the New York intellectual community made them pushovers in discussions about Goldwater’s views. They had cliche answers but only to their self-created straw-men. To exaggerate only slightly, they had never talked to anyone who really believed, and had thought deeply about, views drastically different from their own. As a result, when they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers, only amazement that such views could be expressed by someone who had the external characteristics of being a member of the intellectual community, and that such views could be defended with apparent cogency. Never have I been more impressed with the advice I once received: “You cannot be sure that you are right unless you understand the arguments against your views better than your opponents do.”

3) It will open up opportunities for growth and learning. If you could choose, would you like your beliefs in five years to be the same as your beliefs today, or do you hope to grow and learn in the coming years? And if you chose growth, do you think you’ll get more of that from talking with people who share your current values and beliefs, or with people who differ from you? One of the main reasons why universities and other institutions try to increase diversity is to expose you to people who look at the world differently than you do. So if you want to gain the cognitive and emotional benefits of diversity, you should seek out viewpoint diversity specifically, including political diversity (along with other kinds).

Our Pick Margaret Heffernan, Dare to disagree, TED Talk (12:49). International businesswoman and five-time CEO, Margaret Heffernan illustrates that disagreement is often the engine of progress and innovation. She argues that stepping out of our echo chambers and collaborating with those with whom we disagree is essential to successful businesses, organizations, and relationships.

Additional Essays
  • Bipartisanship isn’t for wimps after all (2016) by Arthur C. Brooks. Brooks argues that the increasing polarization and contempt between the political right and left is not only problematic from a social or philosophical perspective, but it is also a practical impediment to American progress.
  • The Indispensable Opposition (1939) by Walter Lippmann. Lippmann provides a compelling defense of free speech, arguing that “because freedom of discussion improves our own opinions, the liberties of other men are our own vital necessity.” Lippmann compares free speech to a visit to the doctor, explaining “When we pay the doctor to exercise complete freedom of speech about the cause and cure of our stomachache, we do not look upon ourselves as tolerant and magnanimous, and worthy to be admired by ourselves.”
  • The Power of Dissent (2003) by Cass R. Sunstein. Sunstein makes the case for dissent, arguing that encouraging disagreement and skepticism is essential to the health and success of any group or organization.
Academic Articles
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859) (HxA Condensed Version). This is a short book on the limits of political power. Mill argues for freedom of thought and speech, and points out that partisans who suppress criticism ultimately weaken the views they are trying to protect.
  • Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993). Rauch places the debate surrounding free speech in its historical context and offers a powerful case for its necessity. Rauch argues that the best method to combat prejudice and bias and to achieve social progress is to encourage vigorous and open discourse.

Try Our Interactive Guide to Difficult Conversations