The Best Book I Read in 2019
An Interview With the Author of “Why Are We Yelling?”
Many of you may know Buster Benson from his mega-hit article on Cognitive Biases. That article turned into a book on productive disagreement, which is a topic that comes up in so many ways right now.
It’s easy to follow politics and feel stuck, like there’s no hope of reaching the other side. Disagreement also come up in relationships, where a healthy process is the key to a long lasting partnership. And it comes up at work, where having the right answer is never enough to get the buy-in of your coworkers.
Buster’s book, Why Are We Yelling, The Art of Productive Disagreement, comes out today. I read a galley copy last month and interviewed Buster about it. There are lots of gems in the interview below, but that just scratches the surface of what is in the book. This is the most impactful book that I read in 2019 and I hope you buy it.
“Buy it” is not something I flat out say in the newsletters. But you joined Coach.me to be a better human, and reading this book is a way you can do that. I’ll get paid an Amazon commission if you follow the buy it link — which I’m using to buy more gift copies to give away to my friends. I’ve already bought ten copies. I really want to see this book get read and these ideas around productive disagreement start to bring people together.
Onward to the interview.
Tony: What’s the first epiphany that people have when they read this book?
Buster: A lot of people seem to be intrigued by the idea that arguments don’t end. That they do and should end is a misconception that we have. We go into all arguments thinking that we’re going to solve this, we’re going to resolve it and then the world will be better and we’ll move on.
I make the case early on in the book that arguments don’t end. They pop up, then they go underground, and they pop up again. It’s better to think about it like weeds in a garden that are going to come back season after season than as something that you can grab and throw over the fence and never see it again.
I think that overcoming this misconception helps people feel a little calmer about the whole thing, because they’re like, “Why did they never go away? Oh, yeah. It’s not my fault. That’s just how they are.”
Tony: Overall, what is this book about? Why would someone read it? Why did you want to write it?
Buster: I saw it as a tool for me to survive and not go crazy in a world where so many conversations have become dysfunctional and frustrating and unproductive.
The reason I wrote it and the reason I think it’s worth reading is because that feeling of being stuck, of frustration, futility, despair, anguish, that very tangible feeling of, “Oh, no matter what I do, everything is going to suck and get worse, and anything I do to try is just going to make it worse.”
That feeling is the thing that I try to root out by proposing that there is this art of disagreement. You can get to the point where you don’t feel stuck anymore. Where you feel like, “Actually, I can treat disagreement as an adventure and as a fun game to play as I go out and learn about the world.”
Tony: I surveyed my Twitter followers and more than half of them said they wanted this book most for handling disagreements in relationships. How does your book help with relationship disagreements?
Buster: Relationships are a good place to start because you’re actually talking to the person in the room. That’s one of the key things that have a big impact in other kinds of unproductive disagreement— make sure you’re actually talking to a real person.
So relationships are great because everything and everyone you need to make it better is in the room. That’s different than when you’re arguing politics, for example, or where you’re sometimes talking to a stranger online, or even sometimes talking to an imaginary foe that doesn’t exist.
It’s pretty well understood that relationships are hard, right?
Relationships are a mixture of getting along and not getting along. You might want it to be easy, but if you’ve actually experienced an easy relationship, you’ll probably get over that pretty quick.
I don’t think people want an easy relationship. We want relationships that make us better. We want a relationship with that person makes us a better person and we help that person become a better person as well.
That means there has to be a back-and-forth. You have to be the iron that sharpens the other person and they have to be the iron that sharpens you, which means that you have to have differences of opinions, you have to have different perspectives.
You have to be open to approaching them vulnerably and authentically and you have to be willing to change along with them changing.
Sometimes when people say that relationships start to fall apart, sometimes it’s because they’ve changed in different directions, right? Somebody’s gone off in this direction, somebody’s gone off in this direction, you no longer relate. But disagreement is one great way to hook people together and make sure that you use each other to become better, and they change together.
Tony: If you get better at productive disagreement, what are the ways your life actually gets better?
Buster: I frame it as a meta-skill or a superpower because I think that this is a skill that can turn conversations and relationship that aren’t productive into something that can be productive.
What they produce is insight, connection, growth, and enjoyment. Things that make you a better person. This process of growth then opens up new opportunity spaces in the world that you can then use move and grow even further.
I see the epidemic of polarization and conflict avoidance as basically slamming shut many of the doors in your life. You’re making the world smaller and smaller by saying, “I’m not going to talk to those people, I’m not going to talk about this topic, I’m not going to approach this disagreement.”
You’re suddenly starting to get squished and squished and all you can talk about are the really bland, boring things that are inconsequential. As soon as you see disagreement as a meta-skill or a superpower you’re like, “Oh, wait. I could use these difficult conversations as stepping stones! I don’t have to go around them! I can use the obstacle as the path to get to the other side.” If your goal is to become the best business person, or the best spouse, or the best artist, you can use disagreements to turn yourself into those better versions of yourself.
Tony: Would you be willing to describe how you categorize fruitful disagreements?
Buster: One of the misconceptions that people have about arguments and disagreements is that they think the goal of it is to change someone’s mind about something. Everyone knows that that’s a myth and a misconception. That’s not really how you have the best arguments. But I haven’t heard many people talking about, “Well, what are the goals then? If it’s not to be right, what are the goals I should care about?”
I highlight these four fruits to make a disagreement rich, meaningful, and fulfilling.
The first fruits is insight. You can use a disagreement to learn about someone’s view of the world in a way that you hadn’t had seen before. You can get a broader, richer, more nuanced picture of the world.
The second fruit can get from disagreement is connection. This means building that connection and improving your relationship with another human. Being seen and seeing someone a little bit better.
Then there’s the third fruit: enjoyment. There’s a joy present when you’re in the flow of conversation and being a little bit challenged and you’re helping somebody else grow a little bit, and you’re growing yourself. That’s really enjoyable. That’s what makes games, and sports, and all these skill-based interests so magical! It’s intrinsically to our humanity to want and find pleasure in these kinds of flow states.
The fourth and last fruit is security. When you have all these other fruit, suddenly the world feels less terrifying, less threatening to you, because you have the ability to turn enemies into humans, and maybe even into friends. These fruit all come out of conversation. We don’t really think of conversation as producing these things, but they’re there. Once you start looking for it, you realize, “Wait, yeah. Obviously. I just wasn’t paying attention to those things before because I was too focused on changing minds. I was putting these four fruit aside in order to get something else and missing the whole point.”
Tony: I really liked your concept of a person’s mind being like a pile of a million rocks. In U.S. politics support for the president just doesn’t really seem to change much when you measure it in terms of Yes and No. I wondered about whether there was actually lots of change going on underneath the surface because changing someone’s mind is actually more like moving a pile of a million rocks one rock at a time. Do you think people’s mind are actually changing?
The rocks are probably shifting in the wrong direction, people are digging in.
If you try to yank someone over to your side, they’re going to pull back. It’s a commonly known bias: the backfire effect or the boomerang effect or just entrenchment and polarization in general.
If you try to force someone to do something, they’re going to resist, especially if their control or autonomy or freedom is at stake.
So that’s just not the right way to do it. If you want a stubborn mule to come over to your side of the field, you have to find a different way than just yanking on the rope and dragging them. You’ve got to be nice to it. You’ve got to let it wander around, and become its friend, and very slowly lean on it, and do other things to eventually get it over to the other side.
I’ve learned through parenting that I don’t unilaterally force my kids to do things. I use social engineering to get them to do what I want them to do. Over a long period of time.
I’m saying that somewhat facetiously, but what I mean is that we should consider the whole person, and be patient, and create enough space to let people change themselves by observing you as a good example and seeing how that might benefit them.
The act of unilaterally opposing evil, which is what a lot of people with strong political views think they are doing, is potentially making it worse. And so we have to be responsible for the effects that it’s having, not just the good intentions.
If everything we’re doing is morally correct, but it’s having the opposite effect of what we want to happen, we should reflect on that and think about other ways to approach it.
Tony: Is there ever a time for yelling at someone and telling them they’re dead wrong?
If someone is wandering into a street and they’re going to get hit by a bus, you should yell at them to get them out of the way. I think when safety is threatened, when the problem isn’t that they disagree, but that they don’t know something or are in real danger and they need to know something urgently, then yelling is appropriate.
I also think that yelling is generally okay in many arguments. The kind of yelling that’s derogatory and insulting is what I would be generally against, but getting heated and passionate? That’s great. We want to express our emotions. We should encourage it. That kind of yelling means we’re talking about something important to us. I’m not advocating that we all talk in whispers from now on. The opposite.
Tony again here at the end. Thanks for reading this. Here’s the link to Buster’s book again, Why Are We Yelling.
PS. Are you wondering why I'm pitching someone else's book? There's some backstory which is that the author, Buster, played a big role in the creation of this company. He'd built a community goal setting site that was popular around 2005. That site, now defunct, but named 43Things, was a big inspiration for the community habit tracking that's built into our app. Over the years, Buster's become a close friend and advisor. I've used dozens of his ideas and I've long been looking for a way to pay him back. It just so happens that he wrote an amazing book and so it's a win-win-win to share it with people.