It has happened many times to me. Also, but not exclusively, on *.stackexchange sites.

  1. Someone makes a statement. Often, but not always, they do this as a response to a question I asked.
  2. What they say doesn't seem right to me! It is in conflict with what I think I know / it seems self-refuting to me / it seems to me to overlook something important that has considerable ramifications to the topic / etc etc.
  3. I think that just accepting what I was told and moving on is likely suboptimal for at least two reasons: * I understand that I may be wrong and I may be influenced by some misconceptions that prevent me from understanding the topic, so if this is the case I would like to ask this person to clear my misconceptions (or else I won't reach understanding) and * It has sometimes been the case that it turned out I was right and the person to make the statements was wrong - another big reason to try to ask him to respond to my doubts rather than simply accept that he is right and I am wrong.

However: All too often when I present my doubts to the statement-maker the results are not what I intended. I am often told I'm rude and argumentative; and even if I'm not being told this the person I'm talking to often simply quits the conversation. Even on SE it has happened at least twice to me: (1) After posting a comment under an answer I was told that because of my attitude the answerer would not answer any more questions from me in the future and (2) After posting a comment under another answer to another question I saw this answer deleted and my question downvoted.

My guess is that I have a nasty habit of crossing the line from asking a person to elaborate what they just said to fighting their statements and trying to prove them wrong. My guess is that while people typically like to elaborate what they just said they nevertheless don't like to see their statements attacked and don't like to have to defend them; rather, they quit the conversation. Makes sense actually; if I know better why was I asking in the first place?

I hypothesise there is one way to try to remedy the situation: try to somehow ask my follow-up question in such a way that it is clear that I am not doubting the accurateness of what I was told. To make the person I'm talking to believe that I believe I am wrong and they are right and I'm just asking them to help me understand why exactly am I wrong. I don't think I'm good in games of this kind, yet I tried this once or twice and I think the results were good; but nonetheless I don't like this method! It seems manipulative to me, it seems to me that by trying to achieve this I am actually trying to lie to the person I'm talking to because it is not true that I believe I am necessarily wrong and they are necessarily right. Often I turned to be wrong indeed; but since, as I said, it did happen a few times that I turned out to be completely correct I don't think I can nor should assume this outcome cannot happen again. And I want to be an honest person.

It would seem that I need to somehow both (a) avoid challenging the statement that was told to me, only ask to elaborate this in light of A, B or C, but at the same time (b) avoid communicating to the person that I believe they are necessarily 100% correct and my doubts are necessarily 100% incorrect!

How to achieve this? (And if this is possible? Ie doesn't (b) imply not (a)? I mean: If I present my doubts but do not believe these doubts are necessarily incorrect am I not automatically challenging the statement I've been conveyed to and therefore upsetting the person I'm talking to?)

  • To be perfectly frank: I understand that the core issue might very well be that I am indeed a bumptious jerk... But if this is the case then, I hope, trying to learn to behave myself in situations like this one might be one of the steps to stop being a bumptious jerk. – gaazkam Jun 21 at 13:24
  • @Ælis Thank you for your edit but the problem also has a tendency to occur when I am talking face to face to someone. – gaazkam Jun 21 at 13:25
  • Hum, online (written) and face to face interaction might have slightly different solutions. If you want a solution for both or for one in priority, you might want to edit that into your question. – Ælis Jun 21 at 13:28
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    Might you be open to providing links for the SE examples? There can be general advice for this sort of thing, but specific examples of interactions you've had that did not produce the results you wanted could help you get some more personally-tailored advice. – Upper_Case Jun 21 at 16:12
  • @Upper_Case Example: biology.stackexchange.com/questions/30950/… – gaazkam Jun 23 at 11:12

I love IPS and I often help moderate this site. Here we have a rule that every answer should be backed up by personal experience or external sources. I find it to be a very good rule and I started using it in other aspects of my life.

On IPS, since having back up is a requirement, asking for it is easier than in real life. Here is how I usually do it:

Hey, we expect answers here to be back up by personal experience or external sources. Could you edit your answer to tell us about a time where you used this technic and it worked? What exactly did you do and how did the other person react?

Sometimes people don't really take it well (because they believe it's a stupid rule) but other time people will edit and turn their answer into a great one.

I can't really predict how the person will react before I ask them (because I don't know them) but I noticed that I have better success when I'm more precise about what is expected.

IPS is a special case and, in real life, you don't have rules to say that people must back up their claim. However, once I learned to properly ask for back up on IPS, I was able to use this knowledge to ask the same thing in other parts of my life.

Some time ago, someone on facebook made I statement that I founded hard to believe so I simply ask them:

Hey, I would like to know more about this, do you have a link I could read?

The person was very gracious and gave me the link. It turns out the source was not a really reliable one but I was satisfied by the outcome (I could continue do not believe this kind of claim). I didn't push the conversation forward because I don't think the other person would have been happy with me telling them that I didn't trust their source. So I just thanks them instead.

I also try to ask for back up in face to face conversation but things didn't go as well.

It was during a family dinner, my mum made two statements that I found stupid/hard to believe. But, instead of saying that I ask:

How do you know that?

This phrasing was a bit confrontational, but a more neutral way to say it could be:

Oh, where did you learned that?

For one of the statement, she stayed mouth open without anything to answer (I believe she "knew" that because it was an urban legend).

For the other statement, she learned it during her medical studies.

Having those back up delivered in real life was less satisfying than on the internet (because I couldn't read through links), but the other person responded none the less (well, at least try) and it didn't turn into a big fight.


Don't present your doubts, present your incomplete understanding (which prevents you from resolving those doubts).

I've been in a similar boat I think. I am naturally pretty argumentative and like to play devil's advocate, and have had some experiences similar to those you describe. The most helpful thing I did to change this was to change my perspective.

I think that it is backwards to work from a position that assumes one of you is correct, and then badger the other person (or people) until you figure out which of you that is. Such a position will, I believe, make this type of conflict inevitable.

Instead, I have found it very helpful to express that I seem not to understand the other person's position, or why they find it persuasive.

It's a relatively small shift, but it has done wonders to keeping my tone and approach much less confrontational. It does not require you to assume that anyone is incorrect, nor to pretend that you do not find your own position persuasive.

The major problem spot is in the second item in your list. When someone explains their position, and that explanation doesn't "seem right" to you, it's easy to give the impression that you feel their explanation is logically invalid, and therefore their conclusion cannot be correct or that they are holding their opinion irrationally. This often takes the form of identifying inconsistencies, major or minor, and then demanding that the other person resolve those inconsistencies immediately and to your satisfaction. There are contexts in which that's exactly the appropriate attitude (a technical discussion among scientists, lawyers arguing legal positions, etc.). It's not really appropriate for a low-key, voluntary social interaction.

So instead of saying something like

You've said you think A, but that contradicts you saying that B is true, which necessarily would mean that A is not true. How can you possibly think A?

you might try

You've said that you think A, but I don't quite understand your reasoning. You've also said B, and it doesn't seem like A and B can be true at the same time. I think I'm missing something about your position, could you help me figure out what that is?

It's not the best phrasing (it's a contrived, generic situation), but the first example can be easily read as an attack-- there is an apparent contradiction in things they've said, and so they must be wrong. You then demand that to demonstrate to you, immediately, that they are not. It's pretty adversarial.

The second example is different. You are assuming that the other party is acting in good faith and is not a fool, and suggesting that the apparent contradiction is seated in your own information not being complete. It's not a suggestion that anyone is wrong, but a statement that you do not understand their argument. Following that with a request to help you understand their position more fully allows you to get more information without them needing to prove their correctness to you. It's much softer than the first example, and also provides you with a more graceful manner in those cases where you are the one that is incorrect.

Importantly, it's good to maintain this rhetorical position even when the other person cannot or will not provide a complete explanation consistent with itself and all known external factors. The "correctness" of a position is independent of a person's ability to explain that position-- most people can tell you that 2+2=4, but relatively few people would be able to walk you through the mathematical proof that demonstrates it. Someone being unable to convince you, or even to justify their position logically, does not in itself make them wrong. It only renders them unconvincing to you.

I've reviewed the comment thread on the linked question, and I can see what the other commenter meant. Your tone in that comment thread was definitely dismissive of the other person's efforts to answer your questions, made it seem that you weren't really considering their comments, constantly challenging with new questions (well, if you're so right, what about this totally different question!?), and filled with assumptions presented as obvious facts but that clearly had little research effort behind them. It seemed that you were refusing any new information, despite asking for it, and that's fundamentally off.

The impression a person gives when behaving that way is that they are looking for a fight or looking only for confirmation of how right they already are, not that they are interested in a discussion, gaining new information, or determining what is true.

This really doesn't change my answer, but I'll especially highlight the personal humility of my recommendation as a stance to cultivate. Being more open to the possibility that you might be mistaken in your premises would have really helped moderate the tone of that comment thread.

  • My problem in this particular thread was that I had a feeling the answerer was answering a slightly different question than I was asking... I was trying to inquire until I get an answer to my question. I was not inteding to refuse the information given - I appreciated the information given - I only felt it did not answer my particular question. .. Does this comment seem like I'm trying to fight you? If yes, then sorry, it's not my intention. – gaazkam Jun 26 at 14:23
  • @gaazkam It does not seem to me that you are trying to fight me here. There's more leeway in describing the operations of one's own mind anyways, since you are an authoritative source. In the linked thread, saying "I don't think this answers my question" would have given a very different impression. Instead it seems that you refused to engage with the answers-- the overall theme of the answers themselves is that there is a lot of uncertainty on that precise phenomenon and so the answer may not be known, but provided a possibility based on similar effects. The second half of the comment – Upper_Case Jun 26 at 14:48
  • (continued) thread was very different from the first half. But in that first half, it seemed that you immediately dismissed information you accepted ("fine, I guess scratching an itch doesn't have to be bad, as I asserted"), and ignored all the discussion of the science on itch mechanisms being unclear and demanded a definitive answer, as though the answerers had "secret" information they were refusing to share. But the biggest issue is something I tried to express in my answer here: you not understanding something isn't necessarily the fault of the person trying to explain it to you. – Upper_Case Jun 26 at 14:55
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    (continued) Stating that you don't understand a thing, and then pointing out what is confusing to you, is usually fine. Presenting assertions as things you feel are true, rather than obvious facts, is usually fine. Again, it's about you and your understanding, not the other person. Constant, blunt demands to satisfy your confusion are usually not fine. There can be other issues, too, (your use of "Great." in the linked thread reads as sarcastic and dismissive to me), but focusing more on "I don't get it" rather than "You are wrong" can be the difference between a discussion and an argument. – Upper_Case Jun 26 at 15:00

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