The right way to go about strategic debate
Several years ago, at a book festival, I met an extremist with impeccable timing. Well, a former extremist. Her name was Megan Phelps-Roper, and she was there to promote a book about how she had left her family and former life with the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC).
Her timing was perfect because her former church-mates had announced they would bring their awful message to my small town (near Colorado Springs, Colorado). So at the book festival, I picked Megan’s brain about how to respond to WBC’s coming to town. I wrote a column about it in the local newspaper.
Her book, a memoir, “Unfollow,” was about leaving her former life behind. But it also forced her into a deeper examination of herself. How could she have believed one thing so deeply at one point in her life, and then, realize it was 180-degrees-wrong, and turn completely around? How do you know you’re right (about anything)? That’s a question we should all confront at one time or another.
In her new project, she interviews, at length, the author JK Rowling. It’s a podcast about Rowling’s decision to engage in the gender and culture wars, but it is about much more than that at the same time. Megan Phelps-Roper reveals the questions she used, and still uses, to examine herself when she starts to feel a little too certain about anything.
Of course, a former extremist isn’t typically a font for strategic wisdom. But in this case, I think she has a lot to teach us. Disagreements about key strategic issues are common, and we have to find a way to disagree effectively and humbly. Strategic argument must be pursued by and populated with those who can set their own egos aside and be willing to consider that they may be the one with the wrong or subpar idea.
Here’s how to question yourself to better know whether you’re right—or just think you’re right. (With credit and thanks to Megan Phelps-Roper.)