The Disagreement Matrix
There are a limited number of options regarding who can be correct (please note that I am considering anything other than the right answer to be the wrong answer -à la high school midterm-). While there is a vast literature on the nature of logical fallacies (I happen to like this website about fallacies), I find it helpful to remember that there are four options when it comes to disagreement. While there are nebulous gray areas that can occur in conversations, many exchanges are remarkably straightforward, and an honest assessment can often show whether someone is correct or not.
One of the most important takeaways for some might be the reminder that there are more options than one of us is right and one of us is wrong.
I have included a few comments about features of these possibilities that stand out to me as important in each of these categories. Please note that just because someone is in one of these categories does not mean that my comment necessarily applies to them. I have also named a few traps that gifted people may find themselves in.
1. You’re Right, They’re Wrong.
Some people may think that they are here most of the time (if you try, I am willing to bet that you can think of a couple…).
Thinking that you’re here does not mean that you are here…
Unless you have seriously and earnestly evaluated the possibility that you are in one of the other three quadrants, you have a potentially large blind spot that probably won’t serve you very well.
The Trap: You can be tricked into thinking that you are wrong and they are right if you have a tendency to project your own reasonability or insight on others. In other words, if you often make well-reasoned and informed statements, you may mistakenly assume that others are doing the same and be duped into having your correct answer supplanted by an incorrect one. This is sometimes referred to as the other side of the Dunning–Kruger effect.
The Remedy: Reality-test your possible projections. In other words, work to be aware of your assumptions, and devise ways to see if they are true.
2. You’re Right, They’re Right.
You are both correct, but communication is such that you don’t realize it. I know at least a few people who end up here because of their affinity for arguing.
A special consideration here is whether one or both parties are used to having their needs met through conflict.
A common fallacy that can occur here is the fallacy fallacy: keep in mind that just because someone is bad at logical argument does not mean that they are wrong.
The Trap: You may assume that they are wrong because you are right, which is a sort of genetic fallacy (invalidating an answer because of where it comes from). I have the right answer, they aren’t me and they’re still talking, therefore they must be wrong. This trap makes for a lousy dinner guest, so if you want to have a social life, I recommend working diligently to make sure that you are avoiding this as much as possible.
The Remedy: I find it helpful to adopt their terms or semantics. It is astonishing how often I have agreed with someone with whom I had just been arguing after I decide that I am not the word police, and that their idea makes perfect sense given how they are using words.
3. You’re Wrong, They’re Wrong.
It is entirely possible for you to both be full of it at the exact same time.
The most agonizing trap that occurs here is that people keep pointing out how/why the other person is wrong and using that to bolster the idea that they are right, even though those things don’t follow logically.
One of the fancy names for the likely fallacy at play here is ignoratio elenchi, or irrelevant conclusion.
The Trap: You have unwittingly made the conversation about proving the other person’s incorrectness instead of finding the right answer.
The Remedy: Remind yourself that you are looking for the correct answer, and that your goal is not to win/show off/prove the other person wrong.
4. You’re Wrong, They’re Right.
People who conflate action and self may work with astonishing diligence to avoid being perceived as being in this corner, because (to them) being wrong means that they, personally, are bad/deficient/wrong.
If someone can acknowledge being here, you can pretty much give them credit for a level of maturity that many people may find elusive.
The Trap: Especially for gifted individuals who have internalized the idea that part of what makes them special (or even conditionally loved/valued/accepted…) is their smarts, being perceived as wrong might seem a threat too big to handle. If I’m smart, I’m supposed to be right, right? If I’m not right I must not be smart, and if I am not smart, I’m nothing. Such an individual may end up arguing as though losing means banishment, because in their head; it does.
The Remedy: This one is a bit trickier, and the answer may need to be a bit more made-to-order. At the core, however, is to have lived experiences that demonstrate to the individual that they are valued unconditionally, and that they do not have to be right all of the time in order to be ok.
While I have a tendency to roll my eyes at truisms, clichés, and platitudes, there is at least one bumper-sticker-grade saying that I find very helpful: don’t believe everything you think.
Most of us think of ourselves as logical beings. The reality is that none of us are. Examine your own thoughts carefully, and ask “is this true” of your own mind.
If it seems like every argument you have is either with geniuses or with idiots, you’re probably not seeing things very clearly. You might want to work on that. But hey, I could be wrong.
Here is a PDF short version, just in case you want one.