Listen to this article
People can worry a lot about how to deal with those inevitable situations when they are displeased by how someone is acting but don’t know whether – or how – to raise the topic. It could be an issue with a neighbour or colleague, a partner failing to pull their weight at home, a friend or relative neglecting to take care of their health.
If you’re on the receiving end of a challenge, it’s easy to perceive it as an attack and feel wounded. If you’re the would-be challenger, however, there are twin evils to navigate: fear of offending, which can lead to passivity and resentment; and a blunt, tactless approach that instead of resolving a situation, may result in increased defensiveness or all-out war.
Sometimes we learn to quietly tolerate what we don’t like. But on other occasions it seems important to let the other person know what we think and try to move the situation forward. How can that be done in the most constructive way possible?
“Challenge” and “confrontation” are usually thought of as synonyms. But we could stipulate that only the latter would refer to the insensitive variety of challenge. So you could be challenging without being confrontational.
Where a confrontation is based on a personal, name-calling kind of attack, a challenge can focus on behaviour. The former is aggressive in tone, while the latter can be expressed in understated and neutral terms. The aim is critical in one and constructive in the other. Perhaps most important, one involves preaching, while the other is about talking things through and trying to understand.
Being able to raise and hear troublesome issues is an important skill. Being able to spot the difference between a challenge and a confrontation leads to being able to avoid reacting defensively to even the most constructive challenge, and being better placed to say challenging things without inviting defensiveness and recrimination.
Philosophy has not so much taught me to question everything as validated my natural disposition to do so. This often doesn’t serve me well socially. Time and again I have found that even the most gentle challenge to someone else’s opinion is received as though I have besmirched their moral character.
I’m sure it doesn’t help that the intellectual modus operandi in Britain is one of adversarial conflict. In the debating chambers of Oxbridge, the high courts, the nation’s parliament, and even news programmes, good, rigorous debate is equated with polarised, confrontational discussion. To argue well is to win, to agree is to concede, and to refuse to come down clearly on one side or the other is to be woolly and evasive. No wonder then that the typical Brit is unable to distinguish between a legitimate challenge that deserves consideration and an outright attack that needs to be repelled.
The version of the golden rule which should apply here is that we should challenge as we would ourselves be happy to be challenged. The spirit of earnest inquiry is that we should seek out the weaknesses in positions with equal tenacity, be they our own views or those of others. At the same time, we should not seek disagreement for the sake of it or magnify trivial differences in the name of intellectual rigour.
If we adhere to these principles, then challenging ideas will become appropriately distinguished from conflict between people who disagree, and the political will not inevitably become personal.
One obstacle to achieving this utopia might be that the word “conflict” is equivocal. On the one hand, it points to an incompatibility, such as a conflict of interests. On the other, it refers to hostilities. So it is easy to forget that ideas can conflict without the need for conflict. It seems to me this is a major problem with the recent debates over religion. Atheism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism – these are all conflicting positions. Recognising the challenge each poses to the other, however, need not result in confrontation.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email email@example.com
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published