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The other day I was having dinner with some in-laws, and one of them made a claim which I fundamentally disagree with. I thought about asking him to explain his reasoning and tell him that I disagreed (in the hope of coming to a mutual understanding, not to start an argument), but then I thought: "Well, if I do that, even if I end up convincing him, it'll create an uncomfortable atmosphere for everyone else, and there's always the risk of it starting some argument." So I kept quiet.

Later I reflected on it, and thought about other times when I had interjected, and was usually met with an uncomfortable atmosphere (as if I was somehow being hostile), or even met with statements like "Nobody asked for your opinion." I think people often misunderstand and assume I'm trying to make them look stupid or otherwise start an argument, when really all I want is to understand why they think the way they do, and present some arguments of my own.

To provide a bit more context for the family dinner example: At one point, the conversation turned to human nature, and a younger (age 17) member of the family started talking about how humans are just animals, giving examples like survival instinct, sexual desires, etc. While I agree there are similarities between humans and animals (say, primates), I can also think of far more reasons why humans are not "just animals". The reason I didn't say anything is because I guess I didn't want to launch into what might be construed as hostile accusations and cause upset at a family dinner, and he is just a kid after all (I consider 17 to still be an adolescent) and still has a lot to learn.

To clarify further: Yes from a biological perspective humans are animals, but we were discussing it from a metaphysical perspective, i.e. saying that human nature is no different to the nature of a lesser primate, which I disagreed with.

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    This seems rather broad right now, as appropriateness will greatly depend upon the situation and what's been said – Maxim Mar 20 '18 at 18:42
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    @Maxim not broad at all, and it's a common IPS provlem – user4548 Mar 20 '18 at 19:02
  • The question of "when is it appropriate" is primarily opinion-based. "How" is a good IPS question. I'd suggest rewording the question to just that one question of how. – baldPrussian Mar 20 '18 at 20:47
  • In the case you provided it might also just be that the teenager said those things to make a bold statement, they tend to do that. – Robin Mar 21 '18 at 7:43
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You seem to be conflating understanding their position and convincing them of your position. Those are not the same thing at all. The latter is much more likely to lead to arguments, but the former, if done well, can lead to thoughtful conversation without hostility.

The key to understanding another person's position is to ask questions -- dispassionate questions, not leading or provocative questions. For example:

  • How do you account for [observation that conflicts with stated position]?

  • Does that mean that [logical-seeming conclusion of stated position] is also true/is something we should do/etc?

  • Could you explain more about [supporting argument]? I'm having a little trouble following your reasoning.

Try to avoid the word "but". Phrase your questions as part of a shared pursuit of better understanding -- you're collaborating, not opponents. (I don't mean that you should say that explicitly; I mean: approach it with that mindset.)

A related problem comes up on Stack Exchange with comments. I wrote some stuff on Meta.SE about commenting style that applies to sensitive in-person conversations too.

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You need to look to your motives: do you want to show you are right, or are you interested in why they believe what they do?

If you simply want to prove yourself right, then keeping quiet is the best option. Whether you are right or not, arguing about it rarely convinces others of anything other than you are insufferable.

However, if you are interested in their opinions, but you think they are wrong, then it is valid to ask questions. The approach has to be curious and actually interested in them. Ask them why they have their stance, if they've believed differently in the past, and perhaps ask about specifics that you think might invalidate their position.

For instance, for your family member, you might say something like:

Many people think people are more than just animals. Why do you think that is not the case?

Then listen to them, and let them talk. If you have a specific reason to believe they are more, then ask about it:

A few animals do use rudimentary tools and have a way of communicating. But they rarely have a sense of self or of a God or religion. Do you think there is any indication that might make people more than simply animals?

Again, let them talk. You don't want to prove them wrong. You want them to see points that don't fit their position and let them come to their own conclusions. That may or may not happen during that discussion. But if you are pleasant and listen to them, they'll be willing to listen to your questions. If you appear open-minded, they will be more likely to be open-minded in response.

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The thing about interjecting or asking people to provide sources to their claims is that to outside observers it will often look like pedantic hair-splitting or attempts to derail/hijack the conversation. Which is probably why you sometimes get hostile reaction.

To try to minimize these perceptions there are a few things to keep in mind:

Is the person objectively wrong, or is their claim a matter of opinion?

Your example of "human animals" is actually a pretty good case study. Obviously by the dictionary definition humans are animals, but from a philosophical perspective there can be all sorts of answers. Thing is though, when talking about philosophy asking for source is rather pointless, one isn't talking about scientific testable facts. When dealing with opinions that do not have one true objectively correct answers (like if humans are "just" animals or "more then" animals) it is best not to frame it as if someone can be incorrect.

Am I adding anything to the conversation?

Say people are discussing, say, gun laws and someone mentions "number of bullets in the clip", now you might think, it should be "rounds per magazine" and actual clips are something somewhat different, but if everyone understands the person and it doesn't change the nature of their argument there is no real point to interrupt them with a technicality, it doesn't add anything and may seem hostile (or smart ass-y to other people). But if they say something factually incorrect that is relevant, like "barrel shrouds make a weapon more capable of being fired from the hip" then you ask them to back that up and/or explain why they are wrong.

Try to figure out what is the key point of the argument

If you are going to interject it is a good idea to know why, or what you are trying to get across. Getting back to the human animal example: so someone claims humans are "just animals", so what? You might disagree, but why is that important? If someone says something like that just to make conversation and then moves on it might not be worth to engage them about it, but if they use it to try and prop up a wrong or disagreeable argument (i.e. "because humans are just animals killing and fighting is great, because it's natural!") then it makes sense to interject.


People get annoyed when they think someone wants to argue for argument's sake or points out minor, irrelevant mistakes to make themselves seem smart. So try to understand the "heart" or the main point of the other person and address that.

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Well, at first glance it sounds as if you would've been shifting the burden to the other person prematurely (if you had said what you wanted to say.) It's a good rule of thumb to at least briefly explain your own position before asking other people to "support their claims."

If people don't know where you're coming from or where you're going with your line of questioning, they are apt to be nervous or hostile.

Your example disagreement is an incredibly thorny example of this. The claim that you disagreed with was that "human beings are just animals." And then the other person listed off some things that you said that you agreed with on a biological basis, but not on a "metaphysical" basis.

And yet there are a hundred million reasons why someone might object to the word "just" in that sentence. For example: you might believe that human beings are inherently filthy, having inherited Original Sin along with our free will, which differentiates from animals. Or you might be a Calvist who does not believe in free will. Or you may not be religious at all, but believe that certain mysterious things have specific implications about humanity.

So if the "kid" didn't know your position, you could have gently explained that and then allowed the debate to naturally evolve instead of leaping straight to asking him to justify himself. It's a good tension-defusing tactic in general to focus on building up your own side instead of tearing down the other person's, but I think it's particularly crucial at the beginning of the conversation, and particularly on subjects as controversial as these.

On the subject of controversy... that is the other issue that you might be overlooking. Do you realize how controversial these subjects are? You said that "after all" he was "just a kid and had a lot to learn." Well, there are millions of learned grown-ups running around today with beliefs very similar to his, probably including the majority of scientists and engineers worldwide.

I'm not saying they're all right and you're wrong; merely that it would help to keep the tone in the room at a comfortable level if you were fully aware of the contentious nature of the debate at hand prior to asking anyone to justify their statements.

Of course, many people prefer to avoid religious/metaphysical topics (along with political topics) entirely regardless of how you phrase it. But if you are going to have that debate, an awareness of the macro societal debate and a willingness to explain your own point of view before digging too deeply into the opposition's should help.

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If it's something you feel strongly about, I suggest making it clear that your silence is not agreement, but deferring from making it an issue. You could say:

I think it's more complicated than that. But we can probably find a more interesting topic for everyone to discuss over dinner. [change topic, e.g. asking him for an update about one of his hobbies or asking someone else an unrelated question.]

You had good insight that other times you have made similar comments, they have not been well-received.

Later I reflected on it, and thought about other times when I had interjected, and was usually met with an uncomfortable atmosphere (as if I was somehow being hostile), or even met with statements like "Nobody asked for your opinion." I think people often misunderstand and assume I'm trying to make them look stupid or otherwise start an argument, when really all I want is to understand why they think the way they do, and present some arguments of my own.

It's not clear whether that misunderstanding is more about that group of in-laws, your general style, or the mixture of the two. Several times in groups of friends, I've gotten feedback that I'm being too intense about a particular discussion (about ideas), and since then I've tried to check in more regularly about how the conversation is being received.

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