By Andy Robbins
Benjamin Franklin was a great statesman and diplomat in early America. But he was not always skilled in the art of tact.
As a young man, his intelligence and wit were often on display at the expense of others. His turning point was when a trusted friend pulled him aside and gave him a sharp rebuke. “Ben, you are impossible,” he said. “Your opinions have a slap in them for everyone who disagrees with you, and people find they enjoy themselves more when you are not around.”
To Franklin’s credit, he accepted that rebuke, and used it to help him forge a great deal of skill as an ambassador, diplomat and gentleman.
There are many lessons to be learned from the remarkable life of Franklin. In this particular case, the story of the transformation of his social skills teaches us that there are ways to disagree without being disagreeable, the first rule of which is to choose your battles wisely. You don’t always need to add your opinion to every conversation.
In fact, people who feel the need to insert their views in every conversation are the kind of people that young Franklin was. Some of these opinionated people may be quite intelligent and well informed, but their bloated egos make them the brunt of jokes when out of earshot. Sometimes it is the best policy to simply let a sleeping dog lie. If someone is wrong about something, why always be the one to point it out?
I have found that an important life skill is to focus on the things that you can agree with people about, not the things on which you disagree. Endeavor to be an agreeable person, not a disagreeable one. It leads to a happier life.
I have had my share of unpleasant experiences with rude know-it-alls, and these experiences have increased with the growth of social media and digital communication. It seems that the lines of personal barriers and laws of social etiquette are blurred on social media, and people are all-too eager to insert their opinions in conversations where their opinions were not invited.
Since I am a person with strong opinions myself, I have on occasion allowed myself to get sucked into arguments on social media where I found myself getting dragged down to the level of the first offender, and then becoming an offender myself.
I have known people who truly do have great insight on certain matters, but they are unmannerly and sometimes downright bullies in offering their views. They barge into conversations where they were not invited, and then proceed to mop the floor with those whose opinions they desire to change.
What do you think that kind of approach does to the recipient? Does it make him or her think better of the know-it-all? Does it make him or her feel impressed with the know-it-all’s knowledge? No. In fact, just the opposite will occur.
The best way to have a conversation with someone when exchanging different viewpoints is to first try to understand the other person’s argument. Show genuine interest in his or her opinion, and listen intently so that you can thoroughly understand what you are arguing against, and also so you can extend respect. If you are a good listener, you will have a better chance of gaining the mutual respect of your opponent.
Next, it is best to not offer your views dogmatically. Dogmatic people look foolish when they sometimes have to eat their words on the occasions that they are proven wrong. So leave room to be proven wrong, because you might be.
Open your comments by first asking for permission to offer a different viewpoint and acknowledging the fact that you might actually be wrong, something like this: “Those are some very good points. I have some thoughts along these lines, too, that might not be exactly right; after all, I’ve been wrong more times that I can count. But may I offer this view for the sake of discussion?”
Who is going to get agitated over an opening like that? It is not condescending, it’s not combative, and it’s not disrespectful. In fact, it’s inviting.
Most people would be happy to give a hearing to someone who shows that kind of respect. What people will react to, however, is if you open your argument by saying, “That’s ridiculous,” or “You’re just wrong.” That is the best way to get a reaction that you won’t like.
The bottom line is that you will never win anyone over to your side by being condescending or patronizing. Know-it-alls may win a lot of arguments, but they don’t win many friends. The best policy is to try to find common ground with people and emphasize the issues on which you agree. In the event that you must hash out a disagreement, then heed the words of Scripture by using gentle, diplomatic words, and that is the way to promote instruction and increase your persuasiveness.
“The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.”
Edinburgh’s Andy Robbins is pastor of Blessed Life Fellowship, meeting on the second level of The Roviar Building at 1220 Washington St. in Columbus. He can be reached at blessed lifefellowship.org. This column is excerpted from his latest book, “How to be Good at Life.”