On the Other Hand

Recently, I was invited to a discussion on a topic I have a great amount of interest in and a little bit of experience studying. (When I say "recently," I mean within the last 12 months; I've blurred some details because I'd rather you not know which event I am talking about.) I arrived mid-program, and quickly surmised that this crowd was looking for red meat. Here there was no one but true believers, ready to give all for the cause and fed up with the numbnuts in charge who were holding progress back.

As is often the case when I'm asked to contribute to such settings, I shared about a recent study my firm did on the subject. (It's fun to work for a consulting firm that gets to study all the interesting topics du jour.) And, as is often the case when I set the setting for our studies, I made it clear that we approached the topic and the study from as flat and objective a position as possible, to inform the discussion with raw data, balanced analysis, and level-headed commentary rather than take a position or grind an ax. And then I proceeded to run through my slides, my numbers, and my takeaways as I had practiced. My colleague, who had invited me to the gathering and who had briefed me on what I was to cover, nodded in approval from the back of the room.

Sadly, his affirmation was the minority opinion. People in attendance did not seem to like that I took such a dispassionate approach to a topic they felt so passionately about. It wasn't that I didn't care; I do, about the topic and about studying it carefully. It seemed that it was because I didn't share their enthusiasm for their side of the topic. One presenter who went after me even went so far as to practically insult me by being dismissive of "data and charts" as being unnecessary and distracting to the fight at hand, waving madly at me as he made the point so as not to confuse anyone as to whose "data and charts" he was scorning.

I realize people can get so worked up about an issue that it is hard to retain objectivity and sanity; I feel this way about a lot of things myself. But I never understood why, if you really wanted to make progress on an issue, you didn't take the time to get educated about how the other side felt, let alone how an impartial consultant viewed things. Truly, we all too often have made up our minds not only that we are right, but that those who are wrong and even those who are neutral are uncaring, ignorant, and dumb.

Leave aside for a minute the possibility that there is no absolute right or wrong on such issues, or that God forbid we are actually absolutely wrong sometimes. Even if I'm convinced in my heart of hearts, by data and experience, that I am absolutely right, I should want to make sure that I give room for those who are against me to state their case. I for sure should not have any beef with anyone who would try to apply a cold hard analytical approach in the hopes of informing the discussion with pure and unadulterated facts. People, however strongly we feel about things, and we really ought to feel strongly about things, let's give room for some discussion and keep our minds open to learn something from others.
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