Ep 274: Escaping the Villain Role

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Justin Lee, talking about how to have more productive disagreements with our teenagers.

Have you ever got in an argument and thought you made a great point and it didn't actually change their mind?

One of the most important aspects of any disagreement is what Justin calls the ego protective instinct.

We don't want to go back on our position because we look like an idiot.

How can we overcome this and have better disagreements with our teenagers? That's the topic of today's interview.

Justin has spent more than 20 years building bridges between liberals and conservatives.

He's the founder of the world's largest LGBT Christian Advocacy Group. And he's the author of the book, Talking Across the Divide.

Justin's going to share stories and tips with us today on how we can win our teenagers over to our way of thinking.

Thank you so much for coming on the Talking to Teens podcast.

Justin Lee: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

Andy Earle: Yeah. This is really exciting. I've been reading your book Talking Across the Divide and really a lot of stuff in here about bridging ideologies.

And how do we have conversations with people who just are in a totally different ballpark than we are. And I love that because I just think so many parents of teenagers can relate to that feeling of just wow, we are not even on the same planet. And so I love that. And I wonder what got you interested in that topic or how you came to be writing this book.

Justin Lee: It was really two things. So the first thing was I grew up in a very conservative evangelical family with a pretty negative view of gay people and to make a long story short, discovered as a teenager that I was gay and I didn't know what to do with that because my image of myself did not at all fit with my very negative image of gay people.

And so I found myself in this position of feeling like I didn't know who my people were, because I felt really connected to my evangelical folks who I'd grown up with at the evangelical church. And at the same time, I felt like I was an outcast there because I was gay. But I didn't really feel like I fit with other gay people because I was too religious. And, and so I was, as I think we all are as teens at one point or another, trying to figure out who we are and, what do I believe?

Do I believe the same things my parents believe? And all of that, as I was on that journey, a lot of the flavor of it was feeling stuck in between two groups of people who didn't like each other very much. And I wound up writing a book about that that, that was my first book.

I didn't even, think of myself as an author, but that book actually got a lot of attention in religious spaces, particularly in evangelical spaces, because I was trying to find a way to talk about some of these difficult issues in a way that the people on both sides of me could say, "okay, that makes sense. Even though I may not agree with you on everything that makes sense." And I discovered that I enjoyed trying to help translate things for different groups of people.

And so I started getting a lot of speaking engagements and speaking to really different kinds of audiences, and I wound up speaking to audiences on both sides of the American political divide. And in particular, the same week that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, I had two talks that I was giving one to an audience that was very politically conservative and one to an audience that was very politically liberal and being in those two spaces and listening to how these two really different audiences reacted to this election that had just happened and what they had to say about the other group really made me think.

We, as a society, are not doing a good job at listening to each other and talking to each other at all. Because it's one thing to say, I think these folks are wrong and I disagree with them. But it's another thing to have all kinds of assumptions about what sort of, what sorts of people they are. That may be inaccurate assumptions.

So that's what ultimately led me to write talking across the divide. I started thinking about all the ways that I had been in the middle of bridges on the religious issues that I've been dealing with. And I started thinking, gosh, we can apply these to politics. We can apply these to family disputes.

We can apply these to arguments in friendships. The strategies that we can use to build bridges with folks who disagree with us on things are the same strategies, regardless of what the issues are.

Andy Earle: It feels like the strategies in this book are really well developed and well thought out, you've got frameworks, you've got steps, you've got all these barriers that you talk about.

And one of the themes that really runs through the whole book is this idea of strategic dialogue. What does that mean?

Justin Lee: The word dialogue I find makes a lot of people nervous because when you're talking about an issue where people have strong disagreements, where you think this other person is really wrong about something like, it's something important.

It's not just, favorite ice cream flavor kind of disagreement when you start talking about dialogue. People think that means, oh, so we have to pretend that this disagreement doesn't matter. We have to pretend that we think everybody's opinion is equally valid. But I don't think that person's opinion is equally valid.

I think they're wrong. But when I talk about strategic dialogue, I'm talking about a kind of dialogue That that is strategic, that has at its center this belief that, yeah, we don't agree, and we both agree that it matters that we don't agree. But we can have a conversation with each other that is respectful and that is kind and we can be good listeners without having to agree.

And when we have that kind of dialogue, We actually have the opportunity to change each other's minds about things. And so if you believe that somebody is just absolutely wrong about something, the best way to show them that they're wrong is to be kind enough to them that they actually listen and care about what you have to say.

Because we've all tried the opposite. We've all tried, going in arguing as fiercely as possible. And we think that's somehow going to change the other person's mind. And instead, they just argue back just as fiercely. We don't get anywhere. But paradoxically by being willing to be kind and take a step back and say, let's have a conversation we are able to open the door to get someone to be more open to listening to what we have to say.

It doesn't guarantee that their mind is going to change, but at least opens that door.

Andy Earle: You talk about changing each other's minds. That's interesting way of phrasing. I don't know if I like that. Oh wait, I want to change their mind.

Justin Lee: Here's the challenge, right? If you and I disagree on something important, obviously, I don't want my mind to change.

I want your mind to change. And you want my mind to change. And if I say change each other's minds, I realize there are some people who are going to take that as my saying, oh, neither one of us is right. Maybe we're both wrong about some things. And if so, we want to be right, so both of us need to change our minds. Maybe one of us is completely right and the other one is completely wrong. If I'm entirely wrong about whatever this is, and you're entirely right, you still have to be willing to put yourself in that kind of vulnerable position of saying, let me listen to you.

Let me understand where you're coming from. And. To encourage me to do the same. We can't both go into this conversation and say, I'm willing to talk to you, but I am not willing to listen to anything.

Andy Earle: I'm not moving an inch.

Justin Lee: I want you to be willing to listen, I need to be willing to listen as well.

And it doesn't mean that my mind will necessarily change. It just means I'm saying, look, if there's something I've missed about this, I'm willing to be corrected. And I hope you are as well. And let's both try and get to what is what's true, whatever that is.

Andy Earle: So how do you prepare for this? You talk about setting ground rules or getting ready when you're preparing for a strategic dialogue session. If I'm a parent and I got an issue I want to really discuss with my teenager, it's something really important. I know we don't agree on it. How do I how do I go about just getting in the right atmosphere, getting in the right headspace and setting everything up so I have the best possible chances of changing each other's minds?

Justin Lee: What you're trying to do is create a space that is the right kind of space for thoughtful dialogue. And you don't want to try to have this difficult conversation with somebody while the TV's on in the background and dinner's going to be ready in 10 minutes.

And, phones are going off and everybody's distracted. You want to be able to set up with this person in advance and say, I'd like to be able to talk about this thing. Can we find a time where we can both commit to just be willing to listen to each other?

And this is not a lecture. I want to hear what you have to say, but I want to have some quiet time where I can actually focus and pay attention. And that's I'm jumping ahead here. But that's one thing that I always say is that it's important to listen first. Because if you go in saying first I want to tell you all the ways you're wrong, then I'll listen.

Especially if you're talking to a teenager, that's the last thing that they want to hear. So you have to be able to open the door as I want to hear your perspective on this. I want to understand, but let's do this in an environment. where we can actually listen to each other.

And if it's appropriate, maybe do this while do an activity you enjoy. Maybe go on a hike together. Maybe go get ice cream together. Maybe, do something where you can be in a space that's outside of your normal space, where it's quiet, where don't have distractions.

And where both of you have agreed in advance, I'm going to come to this, Willing to listen, but also I'm going to come to this with a spirit of wanting to end this conversation in a better place for the two of us than where we started. It's not something you can just spring on somebody because you may not be distracted, but they may be.

Andy Earle: Setting things up ahead of time is more than half the battle to really having a good productive conversation with somebody.

Something you talk about that's really interesting is on setting ground rules. What do you mean by that? Like things are off limits or we're not going to talk about this or how do we set a ground rule for an important conversation?

Justin Lee: When I do a talk with a large group of people, or we're having some kind of big discussion in a large group, we're going to pull out the whiteboard and say, let's write out ground rules. If you're talking about a family discussion, this can be as simple as just having an agreement in advance that you're gonna do your best to listen and not interrupt each other and that you both agree that you want to get this right. One of the things that I think is often important to put out there right up front is just to acknowledge the other person's concern that whatever it is they're worried about, whatever it is that they think that you're wrong about, or, whatnot, that matters to them. You're not saying I think that I'm always right about everything, or I think that this issue is unimportant.

You're saying, I know it's important to you. I care about that. Set that up front and make sure that they understand that you understand that and that you're both going into this with a willingness to listen and try to understand each other.

That's the kind of thing, we're talking about ground rules. That's the kind of thing that you're talking about, whatever that looks like in your particular situation.

Andy Earle: One of the biggest barriers that often gets in the way of really connecting or having a, one of these type of really deep conversations that we're talking about here is something that you call the ego protection instinct.

What is that and why is that so hard to overcome?

Justin Lee: Nobody wants to be wrong. Nobody wants to be the villain. And so often when we have a dispute with somebody, we go into this dispute thinking of them as either the villain of the story, or we think of them as wrong, which is understandable because if we didn't think they were wrong, we wouldn't be having a dispute.

When we talk to them in a way that suggests, I think that you're a bad person. I think that you're an ignoramus. I Even when we don't say those words, they become defensive. It's understandable. And so this is one reason that, you often hear people say things like, use I language instead of saying, you did this, say, I feel this way. That kind of thing.

One of the reasons people say that is when you come at somebody with something accusational, so you say, you did this and you are wrong about this. People's natural response to that is to put up walls and to get defensive. And it's really interesting.

You'll often find in arguments when people get really angry, it can seem like inappropriate anger. Like, where is this anger coming from? Very often that anger is a sense of defensiveness. It's, they're feeling hurt. They feel like you're accusing them of something. Or they feel embarrassed because they've realized that they made a mistake, and they don't want to admit it in the moment.

And so they get defensive, they get angry, and that's the worst time to try to convince someone to listen to you or to change their mind about something or whatever. And so what's much better is to begin our conversations by listening to the other person and trying to understand their point of view, rather than to come at them with accusations. Because even if you don't agree with their take on this issue at all.

Just listening and helping them to feel really heard and understood before you start to speak, that helps them calm down. It helps them feel less defensive. And it allows you to go into whatever you want to say with a real sense of this is how this person sees what's happened.

This is how they see the world. And to say what you want to say within that context rather than just coming at them in a way that makes them defensive. It makes such a huge difference. And that's the thing I always tell people, if you want to take one thing away from the entire book and this whole conversation, it's next time you have a dispute with somebody, force yourself to stop and listen to them first and listen as well as you can and echo back to them what you heard them say.

So what I'm hearing is, you were feeling this way because this has happened in the past, and so when this happened, you felt like this, and so when I said this, it made you feel that way. It's amazing, just that simple thing. You're just telling them what they just told you. They go, if you get it right, they go yes, that's how I feel.

And suddenly this tension just is released, and then you have the opportunity to actually say what you want to say in a way that it's going to be much more easily received.

Andy Earle: When has anyone ever had a conversation that went, oh, thank you so much for telling me how wrong I am. You're right.

Yeah. I'm going to change my mind on that. Yeah.

Justin Lee: I think about this with politics all the time. We all have I don't know if everyone does, but the majority of us, I think, probably have pretty strong political opinions these days. We're a pretty divided nation. And so what tends to happen is when we talk to people whose political opinions are very different from ours, we so easily slip into this kind of accusational thing where it's like, you people on your side of the political aisle, you people who voted for this candidate or who, didn't vote or who did this or that, you people are the cause of all that all this problem.

And you're, you did this and you did that. And all of a sudden, from their perspective, you've just told this story where they are the villain of the story. But nobody sees themself as the villain of the story. What are they gonna do? They're just gonna reject the entire picture that you've just painted.

That everything you've just said is wrong. You've accomplished nothing. But it's our instinct to do that. So we have to rein that in. And try the best we can to listen and put ourselves in the other person's shoes. And what that allows us to do is to see it from their perspective even while we still disagree.

So instead of coming in and saying people who vote the way you do are terrible people, I can ask questions about, have you always aligned yourself with this particular party or if not, what changed that? Tell me the story of your political awakening and what's changed your mind politically over the years and whatever.

Or in a conversation with a teenager, you can say, let me shut up and you just tell me from your perspective what happened. Because clearly we're not seeing this the same way. I want to understand fully from your perspective. And as they tell the story, you begin to understand.

Okay, I still think they've got stuff wrong. I still think they're voting wrong. I still think they made the wrong decision here. But now it makes sense to me why. And now that it makes sense to me, I don't have to talk to them as a villain anymore. I can talk to them as a reasonable person who made a decision I think is the wrong one.

But it's understandable, and that's such a different conversation.

Andy Earle: I think I resonated a lot with that idea of kind of painting the other person as a villain, because I think that's so human, and I hear that so much from parents, where it's like you hear them describe their teenager, and this kid sounds terrible. They're so ungrateful and, not motivated. I've tried everything to get them to behave. And you talk to the kid and they're like, Oh, my parents are so annoying. And they have this whole narrative about how like the parents are just nagging them and are so unreasonable.

And then we recruit our friends to like back us up. Can you believe what my kid did? And then, Oh, what a terrible kid you've got. Meanwhile, the kids are like, can you believe how lame my dad is?

You talk about being on teams or how we're on, on different teams. And I really resonate with that because I think we totally do that. As parents and teenagers a lot, there's it's this us versus them mentality. And you talk about something I thought was really interesting about reshuffling the teams or redrawing the team lines. And I wonder how you do that or how you could strategically do that as a parent.

Justin Lee: When we attack a person because they're part of a political movement that we disagree with, or they have a particular point of view, we just cause them to become more defensive because what we've said is you and people like you are the problem. And so we've just drawn a line, between us and them. And you can do the same thing in a conversation, with a family member where if you start talking about, kids these days, you're drawing a line. You're saying there's a line between people like you and people like me and we're different.

How is that going to help you Connect? All it's going to do is tell this kid. Oh, you think that my entire generation is a problem. So clearly I can't do anything right, because I'm never going to not be part of this generation. Instead, what's helpful is we all have this instinct again.

A lot of this is psychology. We all have this instinct to have teams. You ask somebody, what kind of person are you? And they can tell you about the teams in their life. Their political affiliation, their religious affiliation, where they grew up and, what groups they associate themselves with.

All of these are our teams, the way we see ourselves. And so when you're talking to somebody. If you talk to them in a way that you emphasize the different teams you're on, you create distance. But if you talk to them a way where you emphasize your shared teams, then you create connection.

And so rather than saying, oh, this is an issue between my generation and your generation, you can talk about. As a family, this is who we've always been. As people from this part of the world as people who have experienced this shared set of challenges, you talk in terms of the things that you share and the common values that you have and you can do this in a way to that's very complimentary of the, the teenager that you're talking to to emphasize that, I know that you are a person of integrity. I know that you care about doing the right thing. I know because I know these things about you. I've, I've. Lived with you all these years. I know this about you.

And these are things that we share. These are things that are important to me too. And you build on these things that you can both agree on rather than emphasizing the difference.

Andy Earle: Yeah, because really the enemy is those idiots across the street.

Justin Lee: There is this weird thing about how through human history, the people have brought people together by naming a common enemy.

I think generally that's a bad thing. It works, but I don't recommend it. I certainly am not saying, make the other people across the street the enemy. But I do think. You can find a common enemy that is not a person, you can find a common enemy, depending on the situation. If you are trying to address an issue, it may be that both of you want to see that issue resolved. You're both frustrated with the clutter. You're both frustrated with the tension that has existed between you and your relationship.

In that case, That can be your common enemy and you say, I'm on your team here. I want to, but it's an easy thing to for parents to say, and you have to actually mean this, right? I want to help. And that means I want to understand from your perspective. What would be helpful for us to accomplish this common shared objective?

I'm willing to hear things that I may be doing that are not helping us get there, but then let's figure out together how we can go in that direction and accomplish this thing because we both want to accomplish it and then we'll both be happy.

Andy Earle: Tangential to that, you talk in the book about listening to a team and I thought it was a really cool concept. How can we put ourselves in the mindset of trying to understand the younger generation more and being a student of what are kids today thinking and what are they doing and what are they interested in. And not just our kids, but kids in general. And trying to soak it up and be curious about their mentality and their life.

And I love that. I think that would really go a long way.

Justin Lee: And obviously there are all sorts of ways, depending on your time and your interest in doing that kind of thing, all sorts of ways that you can tap into what does the teen culture today look like, what's going on, on, on Tik Tok and what's going on, online what are the discussions that you can find and and what's happening.

There are certain limits to that. I think a lot of parents would love to be able to just show me the web link or something that I can click on. That's going to explain all of the current slang when and it's obviously not that simple. But there is a sense in which if you keep your eyes and your ears open, and you pay attention to the conversations that are happening, things that you hear wherever you are. You can learn a lot about the cultural understandings that this team has grown up with, which are going to be different from yours, because each of us, we've grown up, in our own generation and every generation looks at their parents generation goes, Oh, my gosh, you guys were so far behind the times.

And then all of us, we get older. We look at younger folks and say, what in the world are you all doing? We don't understand. That's just the reality of being human. You're not trying to learn all the current slang so that you can use it in this awkward way, but you do want to try to understand as much as you can about the world that this person has grown up in, because that's shaped how they understand their place in it.

Andy Earle: I love that. And I think that this book is a great step in the right direction. A lot of great strategies in here to help people to just take those steps and have those conversations and maybe end up a little closer afterwards. Justin, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing your story and your ideas. And taking time away from your new book to come chat with us. It's been really a pleasure to have you on.

Justin Lee: I'm honored. Thank you. And folks who want to follow my stuff can find me on the web at geekyjustin. com. That's G E E K Y J U S T I N, geekyjustin. com. And my book, Talking Across the Divide is there and my other stuff as well.

So thanks. Thanks again.

Andy Earle: The book is Talking Across the Divide. How to communicate with people you disagree with and maybe even. Change the world. Thanks again for coming on the show and good luck with the new book.

Justin Lee: Thank you.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Justin Lee talking about how to have more productive disagreements with our teenagers. And we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Justin Lee: And you realize, oh, I just won this argument. But somehow it feels bad. I haven't brought us any closer together. They're hurt. They're angry. I won, but did I really win? And obviously that's not where we want to be.

Andy Earle: And finally, we get to the good part where we get to, tell them what they need to know about our way of seeing things. And I love this passage in here where you say, why do you care so much about this issue? Don't just tell me why the issue is important. Why do you care so much about it? What makes it so important to you?

Justin Lee: If we just come in and argue the position, we're not going to get anywhere. But if I understand why you hold the position, and you understand why I hold my position, maybe our interests can still be aligned and we can find something that works for both of our interests, or at least take a baby step in that direction, even though neither of us may get exactly the position that they wanted.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. Your membership helps support the work we do here at Talking to Teens.

It's completely affordable and you can now sign up directly through Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Justin Lee
Justin Lee
Justin Lee is a nonprofit executive and author who uses nuance and empathy as tools for global change. Justin first gained an international following for his work as a Christian ministry leader helping heal church and family divisions on LGBTQ issues. (For more on this, see Justin’s book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.) Today, Justin teaches audiences to apply the same powerful bridge-building techniques to all sorts of difficult issues, from political polarization to family disputes. (See Justin’s book Talking Across the Divide: How to Communicate with People You Disagree With—And Maybe Even Change the World.)
Ep 274: Escaping the Villain Role
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