Finding the sense in nonsense

Imagine the scene. You’re midway through a meeting. Someone—the person who rankles you most—argues a point that to him is totally obvious but to you is sheer idiocy. What happens next? Most likely you tune out what he’s saying and tune into your own internal dialogue—a dialogue that goes something like this: “Here we go again. I can’t believe it. This guy just doesn’t get it. He’s utterly hopeless. There’s no point in trying to reason with him. I’ll just have to . . . .” Have to do what? Well, use the stick, the carrot, or the .357 magnum—that is, fight back, humor him, or give up on the relationship, basically killing it.

You’re far from alone. This same scene unfolds everywhere, producing the same result every time: stress and frustration on the one hand, no learning or progress on the other. That’s what’s called the lose-lose box.

Clearly no one likes ending up in this box. So why do so many of us end up there so often? How does it actually happen? The easy explanation is that the other guy pushes us into it, as if by gunpoint. After all, how else can a reasonable person respond to nonsense? Maybe. But that answer is so self-defeating—it will never get you out of the lose-lose box—it’s worth considering other possibilities. Cognitive science and my own research offer three explanations:

  • Naive realism. We all share a universal tendency to assume that our facts speak for themselves, and as a result, to believe (falsely) that any idiot should agree with our views.
  • False consensus. We also tend to believe that reasonable people share our views when, in fact, most don’t. This belief, reinforced by the cultural tendency to avoid disagreement and to save face, makes anyone who disagrees look like the odd-man-out.
  • False comparisons. I came across this shared tendency in my own research on leaders who, I discovered, tend to compare their strengths with others’ weaknesses, but seldom compare their weaknesses with others’ strengths. Hence, they rarely take a balanced view.

All of this adds up to one result: the tendency to focus on the nonsense and to overlook the sense in opposing views, pushing us into the lose-lose box. Usually we don’t even realize it’s happening.

To guard against these tendencies, it helps to actively search for the sense in what others say even when—especially when—it strikes you as nonsense.

Why, you might ask, would you want to do that? And even if you wanted to, just how exactly would you go about it? The rationale as to “why” is simple: less stress and frustration, more learning and progress. That’s what’s called the win-win box. By looking for the sense in what others say, you are more able to demonstrate that you understand others’ views before pointing out what you think they might be missing or how you differ with them.

Odds are, if you make good sense out of what others say, they will be more inclined to make good sense out of what you say. And therein lie the seeds of learning and progress.

The “how” is less simple, because it requires discipline and practice. But if you consciously and consistently do the  four following things, you will rarely find yourself in the lose-lose box.

  • Shift your attention away from your internal dialogue and onto what the other person is saying. As soon as your internal dialogue starts, take that as your cue to stop listening to it and to start listening to others. As soon as you find your blood pressure rising, start taking notes on what others are saying. Avoid editorializing. Record their words, not your assessments.
  • Inquire into and listen for the underlying logic behind others’ arguments. Even if you disagree with what people are saying, you can still inquire into and listen for the logic underlying their arguments: what they think causes what, and what leads them to think so. Try to discern that logic; if you can’t, ask for the thinking behind their views and what leads them to think that way. Then outline their logic in your own mind or, better yet, on paper.
  • Paraphrase others’ views and test whether you’ve captured them well. Once you’ve listened closely to the underlying logic behind others’ views, paraphrase the logic succinctly and in a way that does justice to it. No caricaturing allowed. The best paraphrase captures others’ views better than they could themselves. End by asking if you’ve understood what they’re saying.
  • Say where you see gaps or where you differ, and ask others to speak to that. Once you’ve grasped their view well and demonstrated to them that you have, only then should you identify where you differ, inviting them to say how they see it: “If I understand it correctly, you’re saying this. I see it differently. This is what leads me to do so. Help me see what I’m missing.” Or: “If I understand it correctly, you’re saying this. These data suggest that may not be the case or at least the whole case. Let me say what the data are, so you can speak to them.”

There’s no guarantee that these steps will lead to a meeting of minds. But I guarantee that they will help you learn something new—something you can use to improve your own thinking and any solutions you devise. As a result, you’re bound to feel a lot less frustration and stress and to produce a lot more progress and learning. Hard to argue with that—or is it?

How much sense and nonsense do you see in opposing views?

2 thoughts on “Finding the sense in nonsense

  1. Adriana Beal

    Diana, your article was shared by a colleague in a forum I host, and I think everyone should pay attention to the advice to remain open to listening rather than just tuning out a supposedly nonsensical conversation. I definitely agree that we always learn something new by listening, even if in the end we still think the other person’s logic is completely flawed.

    As for your question, I’m a big fan of the book “The Opposable Mind” by Roger Martin, about integrative thinking. Whenever someone asks me to choose between opposing alternatives, my first reaction always is, why do we have to choose?

    The ability to hold two opposing ideas in our minds at once, and reach a synthesis that contains elements of both but actually improves on each is a great skill to develop. It’s much more productive to be open to listen to different views than to stubbornly hold on to our initial ideas, especially when we are trying to find creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

  2. Putcha Narasimham

    This practice requires us to be deeply philosophical and even saintly—not impossible but very unnatural.

    It is very hard to tolerate “perceived nonsense” in a live discussion or even rapid online discussions but slowing down reaction brings sense or reduces the absurdity of nonsense.

    I use the following when I run into serious disagreement occasionally:

    1: Defend the perceived nonsense with the belief “There must be some good reasons for this nonsense”. Let me find and supply them since the guy is not able to do it”

    2: Often there are some implied assumptions which were never checked and sorted out.

    3: OK what is the common ground? I am challenging the basis. I hold that …… If that is not acceptable, there is nothing to discuss.

    4: I upload all my odd beliefs to and ask members to identify the unacceptable statements and point out what is wrong and how they would correct it.

    This does not win the arguments but reduces the rage and bitterness of them.


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