“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it” Joseph Joubert
On a sunny afternoon at Stanford University, the PhD student Elizabeth Newton spotted two friends, Molly and James with their back on the school lawn having a casual conversation. She immediately deduced that they were the right people for her experiment. She invited them to join her experiment on Tappers and Listeners ─ a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.”
The Tappers were given a list of twenty-five popular songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “Silent Night” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out its rhythm to a listener by hitting its rhythm on a table. And the listener’s job was to guess the name of the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. James agreed to be the tapper and Molly the listener. They were the 120th participants and like those that preceded them, the results were shocking.
To begin with, out of the 120 songs tapped: Listeners guessed only 2.5% of the songs that is 3 out of 120. Here’s the interesting part, before the listeners guessed the title of the song, Elizabeth asked the tappers to predict the probability that the listeners would guess correctly. They all predicted something above 50 %.
N.B. I tried this experiment yesterday and guess what? Even I was overconfident in how good I could tap and be understood. But my friend, the listener couldn’t even guess one of the songs. Try it, too.
The reason (we) tappers hardly get the rhythm across is because, as Elizabeth Newton concluded: “When a tapper taps, he/she is hearing the song in his/her head. It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune —all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps”.
The second fun fact about this experiment (aside from the fact that it earned Elizabeth her PhD) is that it always generates subtle or open arguments. Tappers almost always accuse listeners of being stupid/distracted enough not to get the rhythm. And listeners accuse tappers galore of being terrible at tapping. This blame game often degenerates, and this may lead one to ask, how can such a benign game with honourable intentions, turn even friends bitter?
The Curse of Knowledge
One of the main problems is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear dry and isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind. The tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day across the world. The tappers and listeners dynamic can be likened to relationships between Bosses and Employees, Judges and Criminals, Politicians and Voters, Priests and Congregants, Parents and Children, Sales Agent and Customer, Boyfriend and Girlfriend etc. All of these groups rely on ongoing communication, but, like the tappers and listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances. This imbalance oftentimes leads to arguments, which lead to argument hangover, which may lead to resentment or even worst, enmity. But if instead of thinking or asking: Who’s right and who’s wrong in these disputes, can we shift the conversation to where the glitch is? And how can we make our case in the best possible form? Have you been in a situation similar to the Tapper vs Listener dilemma? Or, have you just being in an argument/ dispute you regret because it didn’t end well? I think we all have. That is why I wrote this piece, to explore this imbalance, how to have healthy disagreements, and a better way to argue and always win.
Years ago I attended a seminar titled: How to win every argument. It was an unusual seminar ─ given the number of conclusions the speaker made at the end of the session. He concluded that:
- We all argue to win
- Words matter, only insofar as they get us what we want
- Arguing is a zero-sum game. (There can only be one winner and a/loser(s))
It’s still strange that we all ended the session without pushing back or even pressing the facilitator to provide justifications for these conclusions. But upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that these assumptions were not so true, back then, and they still aren’t now. Here’s why.
- What does winning even mean?
Winning means different things, to the same/different people, under different circumstances [in debates/arguments].
#1. On the one hand, it may entail: destroying the other person’s points, making him/her look dumb, or successfully pulling him/her to your side of the argument.
#2. On the other hand, it may entail speaking up, getting out of your comfort zone and/or becoming a better debater each time you argue.
These aren’t categories, nor distinct personality types, wherein some people in the world only do #1 and not #2. Instead, they’re strategies we (sometimes) rely on, depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in.
- With #1 the focus is on others. Your opponent has to be persuaded
- With #2 the focus is on self. The whole point here is self-growth
If your opponent is an angry stranger, scammer or political opponent: you will behave and argue differently than, when your opponent is your kid, spouse, sibling, friend or boss.
That is why the definition of winning is key. Two people can engage in an argument and exit the interaction happily. Each of them feeling they both won because they brought two different mindsets to the stage. One came to defeat the other, the other came to grow and be better than his previous self. Sometimes these two objective overlap, sometimes they don’t.
- Is Arguing a Zero-sum Game?
How Joe argued his way into a relationship (True story from Buea)
Joe: “Hey, I know you! Your name is Glory isn’t it?”
Marie: “It’s Marie. But what makes you say that?”
Joe: “I don’t know……you just look like a Glory to me. What about your second English name? Is that Glory?”
Marie: “Nope. I don’t have any.”
Joe: “Hmmm….well, good to meet you, Marie. I’m Joseph. But my friends call me Shaggy.”
(They shook hands).
Marie: “(mockingly) Why do they call you Shaggy?
Joe: “Wandaz! Do you think I’m going to tell you the history of the Shagster when you haven’t even shared your nickname? Don’t be shy. What was your embarrassing childhood nickname?”
Marie: “(blushing) I can’t tell you.”
Joe: “It’s as if you don’t want us to be friends anymore Marie.
Marie: “If I tell you, you won’t laugh, Ok?”
Joe: “I won’t……Shaggy might…but I won’t.
Marie: “Forget it lol!”
Joe: “Ok seriously. Pinky swear (he took her hand and did a pinky swear). See. The oath has been taken. Shaggy will not laugh.”
Marie: “(hesitant) It was ratus.”
Joe: (Silent for some time. Then after a few moments of tension building, he acted like that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard. He closes his eyes. Slapped his forehead with his palms. And acted as if he was trying to restrain incoming laughter)
Marie: “Stop it! You swore not to laugh. (Punching him on the shoulder)”
Joe: “I’m not….I’m not laughing…..it’s… …..just……ratus? (He repeated the name with emphasis) Your name was raaattttuuuussss? That’s the nicest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Marie: “Alright Shaggy…it’s your turn. Why did they call you Shaggy.”
Joe: (went into telling the story).
It all happened in a snack-bar, on February 14, 2019. And two years later, Shaggy and Ratus have celebrated four anniversaries: their first meeting, their first chat, their first date, and Valentine’s Day.
Each time I hear their story, I can’t help but observe the subtle arguments and how they all left happy. This is just one of many non-zero-sum games. Win wins exist in argument worlds.
They were three defining moments/elements:
- Names: Shaggy and Ratus
- Physical touches: Handshake, Pinky swear and back Punches.
- The subtle arguments they have at each level.
Shaggy fell for her the moment he met her. Ratus fell for him the moment he made her laugh. And they both left happy with the results.
- Do Words Matter?
I am an avid consumer of daddy-daughter related content. And when you spend time in that space, you invariably fall into stories like these:
“There once was a sweet little girl who looked frightened by the crashes and flashes of a thunderstorm. From her bed, she called out to her daddy. He came in with a gentle smile and sat down on the edge of her bed, assuring his daughter that she had no point in being afraid—she was safe and Jesus is always with her. The little girl thought about that idea for a moment and then said, “I know that, Daddy. But right now, I need someone with skin on.” Anonymous
The beauty in this story is that almost at the end, there is a little argument. And guess what? Both sides leave the interaction transformed and better off.
Firstly, the dad was right. Jesus will always be there to protect her if she trusts him. Jesus is more reliable than any other protector in the world. And having that in mind will guide her to lead a fearless life.
Also, the daughter was right. Dad is not God. God provides and protects. But on earth, Dad has to assume the roles of God – her protector and provider. He can’t just relinquish his responsibilities. That lesson will/should stick with him for as long as he lives.
Words matter! They enable both sides to make their case, speak their minds and grow in the process. And to do it in the most charitable way possible. With this mindset the notion of zero-sum arguments auto-destroys. It shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, we can grow from it.
A good argument, debate or disagreement is not war. It’s not even a tug-of-war, where you can drag your opponent to your side if you pull hard enough on the rope. It is more like a dance that hasn’t been choreographed, negotiated with a partner who has a different set of steps in mind. If you try too hard to lead your partner will resist. If you can adapt your moves to hers and get her to do the same thing, you’re more likely to end up in rhythm.
I was once caught in the middle of a debate between two friends: a theist and an atheist. The Theist was like: “God exists because nothing else could explain the existence of the Universe. And anyone who doesn’t believe that is stupid”. It was depressing being in the middle of it because I was forced to moderate. And also because the theist guy had made three uncharitable claims in one sentence. What was the atheist suppose to say? “No, God does not exist” or “I do not believe in God” or “That’s stupid.” What if the atheist had said it first, “Evolution better explains the creation of the universe, Evil exists, so God does not, and anyone who doesn’t believe that is stupid” the theist wouldn’t be able to refute that argument simply by saying “God does exist” or “I believe in God” or “That’s silly.” These simple responses are not refutations. There is a lot that should go into the formulation process.
As we saw from the Tappers and Listeners experiment, we need to accept our limits with words as tappers and accept our inability to listen hard enough to understand as listeners.
This is a piece about arguing to grow ─especially when a lot isn’t at stake. The next time you’re tempted to denigrate the listener or speak with the tappers superiority, remember you’re maybe the terrible teacher.
Please share this with that friend or acquaintance that needs it. And before leaving, remember to drop a comment. Once more, thanks for reading.
Verberi Leslie Michael.