The Certainty Fortress: How To Dialogue With The Aggressive Right

As I’ve been in discussion with people who disagree with me, I’ve been looking for ways to deal with these conversations.

They often do not go well, especially if the person is ideologically to the right. A combination of cocksure attitude and combative stance, with lack of genuine interest in listening to another view, can make these attempts at conversation turn negative quickly.

I’ve realized we need some good conversation “markers” and “exit ramps” so that we can protect the relationship and still assert a different viewpoint.

I don’t see it that way, but I’m curious to find out more about why you see it the way you do.

This is one way to interrupt the argumentative pattern. Curiosity is gentler, and changes the dynamic from a contest to a more appreciative inquiry.

It is not always necessary to say “I don’t see it that way.” But sometimes we need to do that in order to arrest the aggressive talk. Saying “I don’t see it that way” is less inflammatory than “you’re wrong” and it provides a way to remind the other person that there is another view they haven’t accounted for.

Following up with a curious question, and then another, and another, is a way again to stop the flow of aggressive talk and require the other person to reflect.

Can you tell me what you mean by ______________?

This is another way to stop a running flow of Fox News talking points. Pick a word or phrase and ask them to unpack it. This accomplishes two things: 1) It forces them away from pre-packaged doctrinal views they’ve picked up from media, and 2) It establishes a human bond by opening space for them to talk about their own experience.

I feel like we are talking about two different things.

A good middle-conversation marker, if there is repeated lack of listening and lack of attention being paid to opposing views. Often I have to insert this statement multiple times before the other person realizes they aren’t getting anywhere.

Let’s stay in dialogue.

It’s OK to say you need to stop. (With a really aggressive person, say “I’m going to stop you there” while holding up your palm to them. This is remarkably effective.) We need to have an exit ramp from the conversation, especially if it is during the holiday and we have precious little time with family and don’t want to spend the whole time arguing about politics or other controversial subjects.

Emphasizing the desire to stay in dialogue leaves the door open. It says you care about what they have to say. It says you value the relationship above the ideas being discussed.

Remember, It’s A Process

We need to have these dialogues in order to be heard, and to help move our family, friends and country forward toward more open-minded views. But we can only plant seeds.

Know that by the very process of asking curious questions, being gently assertive, and having an exit strategy, we open cracks in the hard certainty of the other viewpoint. We can always follow up with a good factual article or reference by email, but the important thing is not to get caught up in the heat of the moment, and attempt to “win” at an argument.

Let’s pledge to find ways to sneak inside the “certainty fortress” of right-leaning family and friends this holiday and beyond.


Violins Not Guns

It’s hard to kill someone with a violin.

What if we had more violins and fewer guns?

The vision of Suzuki was to create a world full of beautiful hearts, nurtured by love. He believed we could save the world if we reared more children in the language of music.

People with the character and temperament of a musician seek to harmonize, not destroy. They also have a robust sense of discipline and action. They are not passive or milk toast. They’ll defend you from the inside out.

Imagine: Concealed or open carry, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t a gun. That guy in the subway with the case – what’s inside? An instrument of healing and transformation, not death and destruction. He’ll kill you with kindness.

Let’s make them an offer they can’t refuse. Violins, not guns.



Fearlessness is not like a wild tiger or brown bear that is locked up in a cage and growls every time you open the door. Fearlessness is powerful, but it also contains gentleness and constant loneliness and sadness.

from Chögyam Trungpa, “Smile At Fear”

I love this quote because it is so counter-intuitive and challenging.

Why would fearlessness not be like a wild tiger? Why would it contain sadness?

There is a certain kind of fearlessness that disconnects from our own and other’s pain. Usually a result of a painful experience in early childhood, and a subsequent denial of that pain as a protective mechanism.

We may feel fearful and timid. Timidity may manifest as a lack of boundaries. When those have been violated enough, when we have not been brave enough to stand up for ourselves, we might finally become fearless. We might desire to be like the tiger or the bear in that moment.

But to access a state of fearlessness, we do not have to resort to anger, or wait until we have been tread upon so many times that we no longer care what anyone thinks.

We can access a genuine sense of wholeness, of self connected to the natural universe, of strength like the seed growing, and of the gentle yet powerful shining of the sun.

Be fearless today, but do it softly. Even tigers can be soft.

An Appetite For Possible Things

All happiness depends upon a natural zest and appetite for possible things.

from Bertrand Russell, “Conquest of Happiness”

When we lose our sense of the possible, our mood darkens.

That first inkling of the road stretching out to a point of light in the distance is about possibility. When we pick up a new book, this is what we hope for. When we embark on a new job, a new relationship, a new project, we draw motivation from the possible.

Inevitably, all people and all projects end up closing off some of the possibilities for us. Once we make a decision in one direction or the other, we commit to a path, and the rest of the options become unavailable.

Our own commitments and choices can thus make our lives seem bleak, like being enclosed in a possibility-less state, like a drab cubicle with no exit.

If we add to that a disposition to look at things fatalistically, it looks even bleaker. If this is the way it was, is, and ever shall be, then what is the point of hoping?

But within the world of constraints, there is still possibility.

We are endowed with creativity, which can find the cracks in the cubicle. We have, under even the most severe constraints, freedom to choose again tomorrow which direction we will go.

Let us open our eyes again to the possibilities, however faint or dimly lit they may be, so that we may be drawn to them, and feel our “natural zest” reawaken. If it is dark, let us be like the seed, and gently push up through the soil. Let us tap that deepest resource of our humanity, our creative spirit.

Sparkling Eyes, Good Posture

The warrior’s virtue or decency comes from this basic sense of well-being, free from any neurotic or habitual preoccupations. Decency here expresses a sense of joy, the joy of living, the joy of being alive.

So there is more to fearlessness than merely having overcome fear. Beyond that, when we speak of fearlessness, we are describing a positive state of being full of delight and cheerfulness, with sparkling eyes and good posture.

from Chögyam Trungpa, “Smile At Fear”

Try it – take your thumb, press it against your breastbone, and raise your chest up by an inch.

Just an inch!

An inch is all it takes to change your world, because an upright posture will release tension in your back and, as Trungpa points out, bring a degree of cheerfulness and fearlessness.

When I run my posture naturally improves. It raises up in just this same manner. No wonder I feel better afterward!


Like Watering Seeds

It is like watering the seeds in a garden. In this case, the gentleness that develops is like the moisture that helps a seed to grow so that greenery will unfold and flowers will blossom. Then, beyond that, you develop confidence.

The ordinary sense of confidence is confidence about something, which is conditional or qualified. But in this case, gentleness and softness give rise to an unconditional feeling that is awake, brilliant, and warm.

When we have both moisture and warmth, we know that the plant will definitely grow. That confidence is the seed that we should share with the rest of the world.

Chogyam Trungpa, “Smile At Fear”

The Source of Softness

When we have a feeling that life is worthwhile and we are worthwhile, from that, a sense of softness or gentleness begins to develop.

 – Chögyam Trungpa, “Smile At Fear”

When we become hardened, it is a spiritual state. This is the consciousness revealed in the story of the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt, whose stubborn heart would not let the slaves go, even at great cost to himself and his kingdom.

How do we reach a sense of softness, what is the source of gentleness?

It is a feeling of genuine wholeness, when we are fully ourselves. All is right with the world when we find ourselves comfortable in our own skin.

Can we be at peace even in times of struggle, pain, conflict, and lack? Only if we believe we are enough. Only if we believe we are worthwhile, that life is worthwhile.