Everyone's Got One..Except Me
April 4, 2013 1:04 PM   Subscribe

How can I go from wishy-washy to strongly opinionated? I'm interested in people sharing their experience of how they learned to own their opinions. How does one stand firm in their beliefs? Apart from a few hot-button issues (e.g. abortion), I rarely know where I stand enough to be able to debate my side.

Usually when someone voices an opinion contrary to what I believe I think, I find myself easily bending, assuming they are more knowledgeable than I so they must have the "right" opinion.

Maybe part of this comes out of how you're raised, as there wasn't much discussion in my household whereas my opinionated best friend grew up in a house where her parents' constantly entertained professor/lawyer/etc friends and so got used to hearing people debating issues from before she could even talk.

I guess I'm wondering how you, as individuals, form opinions. Were you once like me but now know where you stand on any given issue? Do you see opinion-forming as a gut-level thing, or do you research a topic until you feel you know enough about it to form said opinion?

The reason I'm asking is that I enjoy listening to podcasts, interviews and such where the person seems to be able to unequivocally talk about issues, everything from the latest celebrity train crash to their country's foreign policy (e.g. Fran Leibowitz) and I want to be able to be more like this, or at least try it on. Thanks for your thoughts.
posted by oceanview to Human Relations (25 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
For the record, it isn't necessarily a bad thing to consider your opinions carefully. It's the people who stubbornly stick to an opinion and refuse to entertain the opposite perspective that cause a problem. So being only opinionated on a couple of hot-button or strongly-felt-to-you-personally issues is actually okay.

But as for how to debate your point - just, practice, and not necessarily accepting the other person's opinion at face value. Ask questions about it. Think it through and hold it up against the stuff you already know and see if it fits. And, do that to your own opinions once in a while too; I know that I disagree with creation science, but I still made a point of investigating exactly what their arguments were and looking at the veracity of the science they were putting forth - and I looked at their arguments against the scientific record and examined that too. My opinion didn't change as a result, but it was strengthened because I'd gone from "well, duh, they're wrong" to "I understand that this is your argument, however, your data overlooks this very important point about fluid dynamics; and factoring that point in makes the system not work any more". Or something.

But it's okay to not be the one Making Your Stand With Your Opinion all the time, and it can be okay to bend sometimes. One of the smartest things my father does when he is having a debate with someone about something is, he acknowledges when they make a good point in their favor that he hadn't considered. Usually that's when the argument ends, because mentally you can tell he's thinking "wait, lemme go think about that new info for a while."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:14 PM on April 4, 2013 [10 favorites]

For me, the path into forming a knowledgeable opinion is to keep the part of me that is willing to listen, and lose the part of me that wants to please others by always agreeing with them.

Be honest with yourself as to what you believe. Listen to the "rightness" in what you are feeling, and not necessarily thinking... But be aware that you may be completely mistaken, out of misunderstanding, ignorance, or any other of a million other possibilities, so stay true to yourself, but keep your heart and head open to dissenting or differing opinions.

I believe we all have personal beliefs in what is wrong and right, good and bad, and tasteful and tasteless, and for the grayer-area stuff my desire to be liked can override my lesser, yet no less true opinion. Stand for what you believe in, and if you don't know what that is... find what you don't believe in, and flip it around, and then you'll know.
posted by Debaser626 at 1:16 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

You can try this: when you read or hear about a scenario, or an event or issue, explore in your mind the possible ways a person might act in that scenario. Listen to yourself and notice how you feel and what you think about each of those options. Try some of those feelings and thoughts on for size.

Can you articulate this as a principle that applies everywhere, or just in situations like this one?
What would have to be true for this principle not to be the case?
Is that true? How do you know?
What does this or that ethical rule imply?
Does that mean you have to be okay with cannibalism, too (or polygamy, or abolishing all forms of government, or whatever -- I mean mean push your principles or rules out to their logical breaking-points and see what happens)? Is that okay? Why or why not?
What do you know for sure?
What do you not know but only think or surmise or trust is the case?
What would you need to know to be absolutely sure about your opinion or belief about this?

And so forth. The idea is for you to hold your own thoughts and beliefs up to the light, to see where they are strong and where they are not, and to get comfortable playing with them and noticing how intricate they are, and to delight in that intricacy and in how they fit together or don't fit together.

Then when somebody else gives you a new thought, you already know how to hold your thoughts up to the light, so you try that on this new thought. And maybe it fits in a delightful way with a thought you already have. Or maybe it does the same thing as one of your thoughts but it does it differently. And that is interesting, so you put that thought to the same questions that you have started asking yourself: does this apply in all cases or just here? What would have to be true for this to be the case? And so on.

And then when someone says something that you disagree with, you can know going into it, "that thought is not compatible with this principle or axiom of mine, and that axiom is very important to me: I know that many of my thoughts require it. So let's put that thought to the test and see what happens." And then maybe you need a new axiom, or maybe their thought doesn't hold up to scrutiny and you can disregard it.
posted by gauche at 1:27 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I develop opinions as I learn more about a topic. Just as it's not shameful not to know everything about everything (we're only human: that's impossible), it's not a bad thing not to have strong opinions on topics on which you're not fully informed.

If you're finding yourself swayed when speaking with a friend who's strongly opinionated about something you don't know much about, try asking them what the arguments for one of the other sides of the issue are. You'll learn more about the topic generally, and it might make for a more interesting discussion than simply allowing their lecture to wash over you.

Being a good listener doesn't mean you already have to know everything. Pay attention, ask questions, and be ready to learn!
posted by asperity at 1:32 PM on April 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

I rarely know where I stand enough to be able to debate my side.

At the risk of cherry-picking your question why not hunger for knowledge, rather than mere opinion?

After all, as Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain or somebody much less famous once drily remarked:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.
posted by puffmoike at 1:46 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Usually when someone voices an opinion contrary to what I believe I think, I find myself easily bending, assuming they are more knowledgeable than I so they must have the "right" opinion.

I think that's the crux, really. I don't think the key to having a strong opinion in something is willing yourself to be more passionate; it's knowing the issue well enough to have heard the arguments on both sides and devoted some thought to which ones make more sense to you and why.

It's a good thing to be open to changing your mind when you get new facts or someone's able to get you to consider facts in a new light. Managing to have a strong opinion about something is something you can do when you've heard the common pros and cons and decided that you think the consequences of Con #2 are a lot more significant than the advantages of Pro #1.
posted by Diablevert at 1:50 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Strongly opinionated people fascinate me. I often find that a lot of opinionated people I know are well-liked. I can be wishy-washy at times. Sometimes I truly do not know one way or the other on a lot of topics. I feel that I am not knowledgeable enough to form a strong opinion. At a gut level I support the Head Start program but do I know much of anything about Head Start, or have any facts to show that it's worthwhile program? Not really.

I used to be more opinionated in my youth, when I didn't know anything. I formed a lot of my opinions because my parents shared them. I accepted their opinions as truth. There was a certain freedom in that, being completely ignorant and parroting your parents. I thought I knew what was right and wasn't afraid to tell you about it. I think I'm so quiet and yielding today regarding my opinions because I feel that kind of certainty was foolish, and frankly, embarrassing.

Nowadays I still don't know anything. What I do know is what I believe in, but there aren't many instances where I feel compelled to defend my beliefs. I do know what I like and dislike and feel perfectly okay with saying so if it's appropriate or contributes to the conversation.

Being absolutely certain is not a plus in my opinion (although some people do tend to gravitate toward people who are certain). I agree that willing to listen and to maintain an open mind is smarter. Like Socrates says, the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing. Instead of agreeing with people or "bending" , it might be better to listen and ask questions and admit you're not sure, if you're unsure. If you know what you think about something, say it and be fine with it.
posted by Fairchild at 1:53 PM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I really like asperity's answer.

And if the opinion-holder is unwilling or unable to elucidate the arguments for a contrary opinion that's usually a pretty good indication their opinion is worthless anyway.
posted by puffmoike at 1:56 PM on April 4, 2013

Don't confuse eagerness to debate with having an opinion. Some people love to argue so much that they could argue either side, and others know what they believe and just quietly shake their heads at anyone who tries to change their minds. People like you mention who have a passionate belief and the eloquence to speak about it are kind of the outliers - not to discourage you from emulating them, but pointing out that these are two separate skills, and you should consider which it is that you're trying to develop.

One of the beliefs that I hold very strongly is that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. I'm not a big debater, and it doesn't bother me much when someone else has an opinion that I disagree with - in part because I can usually emphathize with some part of their argument, or see situations in which I'd agree with them. In many strongly polarized debates my preferred option is usually closer to the middle, so either endpoint can spew things that make the other look wrong, and I'll agree with it. That doesn't mean I don't have a strong opinion, it just means that my individual pieces of opinion don't dump me completely into one camp or the other. I do have my opinions (though, I'll confess, that took a while - previously), and I'm not willing to change them, but I don't hold a strong belief that my opinion is the best one, or something I want to convince others to agree with me about.

That said, yes, form opinions!! Read up on stuff! Do your background reading not just for facts, but for internet crazies arguing both sides, and don't just shrug and say "they're crazy", but go to the trouble to decide precisely why a particular crazy argument is fallacious or irrelevant to you. Then if you're talking with someone and they start spouting out facts and histories, you might suddenly get the sense that they're cherry-picking their examples, or ignoring counter-arguments. Just because someone likes to talk about their opinion at length doesn't automatically mean they've put much thought into both sides of the issue.
posted by aimedwander at 1:57 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Newman knew exactly what you are talking about, and wrote about it beautifully in Loss and Gain (1848), where he describes how we acquire 'views'. He sees this as something that comes gradually with age and experience, as you gain perspective on the present by being able to compare it with the past:

It may be as well to state more distinctly what a "view" is, what it is to be "viewy," and what is the state of those who have no "views". When, then, men for the first time look upon the world of politics or religion, all that they find there meets their mind's eye as a landscape addresses itself for the first time to a person who has just gained his bodily sight. One thing is as far off as another; there is no perspective. The connection of fact with fact, truth with truth, the bearing of fact upon truth, and truth upon fact, what leads to what, what are points primary and what secondary—all this they have yet to learn. It is all a new science to them, and they do not even know their ignorance of it. Moreover, the world of today has no connection in their minds with the world of yesterday; time is not a stream, but stands before them round and full, like the moon. They do not know what happened ten years ago, much less the annals of a century; the past does not live to them in the present; they do not understand the worth of contested points; names have no associations for them, and persons kindle no recollections. They hear of men, and things, and projects, and struggles, and principles; but everything comes and goes like the wind, nothing makes an impression, nothing penetrates, nothing has its place in their minds. They locate nothing: they have no system. They hear and they forget; or they just recollect what they have once heard, they can't tell where. Thus they have no consistency in their arguments; that is, they argue one way today, and not exactly the other way tomorrow, but indirectly the other way, at random. Their lines of argument diverge; nothing comes to a point; there is no one centre in which their minds sits, on which their judgment of men and things proceeds.

But as Newman points out, acquiring views involves loss as well as gain. 'As time goes on, and we number and sort and measure things—as we gain views—we advance towards philosophy and truth, but we recede from poetry.' So enjoy your lack of opinions while you still can; you may acquire them sooner than you think.
posted by verstegan at 2:00 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a policy wonk and an aggressive consumer of news so I frequently feel comfortable enough with the amount of information I have to stand up for a particular position. I can't think of an issue where I feel so entrenched that I am not at all willing to hear an opposing perspective. Sometimes it's because I truly want more information (frequently in issues related to foreign affairs or other areas where I am no expert) but other times, it's more about hearing what those on the other side are saying so I can rebut them in the future (usually social issues - abortion, gay marriage, etc.).

When someone voices an opinion that I don't share, I feel curious more than argumentative (... usually ...). I believe that I'm a generally smart and well-informed person and as such, all other things being equal, I am as entitled to my opinion as anyone else. I'm also as likely to be wrong as anyone else. Being louder or more articulate, or having the most sources or anecdotes doesn't make it more likely that someone is right, just more persuasive.

I don't believe that I have strong opinions on every issue but I do believe that I am a rational, intelligent person and that I could come to a reasonable opinion if I reviewed a good deal of the information available on an issue. I live in Washington, D.C. and for some people here, it is their life's work to know every detail about X, Y, or Z. That doesn't mean that they're correct and I wouldn't listen to them thinking that they're correct or smarter than me, necessarily, but they are probably more informed on that issue than I am.

I enjoy playing devil's advocate. Occasionally while doing so, I'll lose track of where I actually stand on an issue. To me, that indicates that my position was pretty fluid anyway so no harm, no foul.

To quote Dan Savage, "Opinions are like assholes - everyone's got one."
posted by kat518 at 2:00 PM on April 4, 2013

Actually, improv can help you with that. In some of my classes we have done exercises that specifically were about expressing certainty about things you know nothing about. I've seen plenty of people talk fluidly about things they clearly did not understand, and in the work environment this is pretty frustrating.

But also keep in mind that the people you are listening to are probably being interviewed because they are highly knowledgeable about their field. They can easily form an opinion about the topic because they've spend years studying the area. Doesn't make them right, but it makes their opinions worth listening to. Additionally, I think many people prep for these interviews pretty carefully. I listened to one man, a Catholic priest, who was interviewed by Terry Gross. She kept asking him about the conflict between the Vatican and the nuns, and he kept steering things back to his talking points. Often he didn't directly address her questions.

I'm not strongly opinionated, usually. At my best I ask lots of questions from multiple angles, and I see that as my superpower. People I find interesting are able to deviate from the script and admit to uncertainty.

It might be an interesting exercise to pick the next subject that comes up on a podcast and do a little research. This guy says fracking kills baby seals - how many baby seals does it kill? Is there any other explanation for the death of the baby seals? Who is this guy and what are his affiliations and credentials? Are there benefits to fracking? Writing can also help you flesh out a subject and find holes in your knowledge.

Toastmasters is also a place to work on your ability to speak off-the-cuff.
posted by bunderful at 2:06 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Why should you have an opinion when you know you're not well enough informed?

Ever read "The 48 Laws Of Power"? There's a whole chapter on the importance of always saying less than necessary.

On the other hand, Greene did spend an entire chapter talking about it. But at least he had done enough research to fill a chapter.

Once you have formed an opinion and are pretty clear about the objections that can be raised about it, you need to state your case in unqualified terms. You don't say "There's a tension there, I wonder whether, perhaps, Bill drinks a little bit too much." I met Bill and he was obviously in the late stages of alcoholism, the family obviously desperate about it. I couldn't tell if the person talking about it was being "polite" or just had her head in the clouds. I thought less of her for talking that way. She should have said "Bill is an alcoholic and it's causing great distress to his family."

But please don't make it your goal to go around bloviating and bullshitting. It doesn't take talent to do that, and the world doesn't need one more fuckwitted noise polluter.
posted by tel3path at 2:22 PM on April 4, 2013

people with strong opinions can be tiresome. people who have opinions but can discuss various points of view to learn more about them -- and potentially change their mind -- are interesting. don't seek to form strong opinions; seek to learn as much about varying points of view as you can.
posted by davejay at 2:47 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I read something a while back - maybe on here - about a game called "academia" or "graduate student" or something (can't find it now) where you have a list of dozens of unrelated words and subjects, and you pick a pair at random, so that you wind up with something like: "crustacean linguistics" or "Victorian underwear."

Then, your job is to talk, without interruption, on that topic, for ten minutes, without pausing or hemming and hawing, after which, the other players ask you questions, trying to trip you up, and there are points deducted every time you say "um" or "I don't know" or hesitate or laugh. It amuses me to think that while I've never actually played that game, I would be really good at it, because that is, in fact, what academia has taught me: to speak confidently and fluently on subjects I know little about, to think on my feet, and to spew bullshit when I need to. If you want to practice speaking more like a podcaster and your main issue is confidence, this might be a fun way to start.

Alternatively, if you want to delve a little more substantively into the conversational game, you might ask one of your friends to meet for drinks once a week and discuss a topic of your choice. Knowing that you're doing this in part for practice might help you feel a little less like a poser when you start expressing your more tentatively held opinions, but having someone else take part in the conversation will keep you from simply blathering on. Once you're comfortable one-on-one, you could even think of expanding the group into a kind of "salon" that meets regularly for drinking and eating and talking about a particular topic. I participated in one of those, occasionally, a while back, and it was a lot of fun. It's fun to have opinions, it's fun to be able to express them well, and it's fun to participate in a conversation in which people can vigorously disagree without ever getting angry or uncomfortable about it. Conversation is an art, and good on you for trying to get better at it.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 3:22 PM on April 4, 2013

I think using professional entertainers and talk show guests as your role models isn't helpful for real life thoughtful discussion (Fran Leibowitz, while entertaining, isn't exactly my idea of a policy wonk.) You hear from these people because they're lively, not because they're great researchers with a keen understanding of whatever. Bill Mahrer would be another example.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:36 PM on April 4, 2013

If you think someone knows more than you, it's probably a good idea to defer to their opinion. The answer to your question is that you need to learn more. Then you can be more confident in your opinions and defend them better.

If you try to skip that step and defend ill-informed opinions, people will just think you're an asshole instead of being wishywashy.

This is the reason people go to college, after all. A degree means you know enough about something that people should generally defer to you.
posted by empath at 3:38 PM on April 4, 2013

Always be ware of logical fallacies.
posted by Brian Puccio at 3:44 PM on April 4, 2013

I've learned that I can disagree with someone without needing (or even wanting) to convert them to my way of thinking. I've also learned to be comfortable expressing my skepticism/disagreement with someone else's opinion even if I don't have a firm opinion of my own with ironclad evidence to back it up. This is where it gets a little difficult because a lot of people, if you say you disagree, will interpret your disagreement as a challenge and ask you to defend it (whether you're ready or not), but you don't have to go along with that.

In that kind of situation, where I disagree (or agree, really, it could work both ways) but I don't feel informed enough to come to a solid opinion, I might look into the question more deeply later or I might not. Depends on how important I think it is and whether I think we're likely to talk about it again.

Sometimes I do the work, do the research and the thinking, and I still don't know what I think. There was a ballot initiative last election where even after doing the work I couldn't decide what I thought about it, so I just didn't vote on it. It was weird, because I thought it was an important question, I just couldn't figure out what I felt about it.
posted by mskyle at 3:48 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

In addition to the great advice above, you might also ask yourself what basic concepts and principles are important to you in this world. I find that knowing where I start from, philosophically, often points me in the direction of what my beliefs might be.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:02 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure there's much point in having a strong opinion about something if you don't have the knowledge to back it up. If you don't have a lot of knowledge about something, then arguably your opinion counts for less than that of someone who really knows the ins and outs of the matter.

My (strong) opinion is that it's better to be open to different viewpoints and learning more about a particular issue at the risk of having your opinions change a little over time, than to have a really strong opinion and be absolutely opposed to changing it.

I actually feel like I personally benefit a lot more from absorbing lots of information and listening to people explain why they feel the way they feel, than I would benefit from having a really strong opinion and thereby being less open to hearing more about both sides. Yeah, maybe I don't come off as impressively as someone who is broadcasting their strong opinion with authority and conviction. But I'm learning more, and at ultimate benefit to myself.

There is currently a political/national hot-button issue that my entire country is up in arms about. Although I know how I feel about it now, at the beginning I was much less sure, because both sides of the argument seemed to have their points. Since then, I have been reading a lot of blog posts and news articles, and speaking to a lot of people who are genuinely more knowledgeable than I am, and I feel that I have now reached an opinion which is considered and based more on rational thought and less on gut feeling. I think I really personally benefited from not immediately picking a side at the beginning and sticking to it nomatter what.

On preview: what davejay said, except a lot more rambly!
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:38 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

The older I get the less opinionated I am, for several reasons:

1) I've experienced many closely held truths become invalidated.
2) I've rarely changed other people's minds through debate
3) I learn more listening than acting as an instrument to promote a viewpoint

There are times to hold a strong opinion and persuade others, but it should be infrequent. The whole situation makes me think of how people who align strongly with one side of a political faction regard moderates as indecisive. A moderate position means that you can see a continuum of value in the positions held by others. The strongly opinionated extremest rarely enjoys this opportunity to think charitably about many opinions.

Yours is the richer experience. I would cherish it rather than seek to be more strongly opinionated.
posted by dgran at 8:06 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think it is important to have opinions. I have known people who always just went with the opinion (and believed the gossip!) of the person they had most recently spoken with, and I never really enjoyed their company as you can't really trust or rely on someone like that. I like it when someone has a mind of their own. I don't feel that opinions need to be particularly strong, or you must have one about everything ("I'm on the fence" is fine), or that you need to share them often though.
posted by meepmeow at 9:36 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Usually when someone voices an opinion contrary to what I believe I think, I find myself easily bending, assuming they are more knowledgeable than I so they must have the "right" opinion.

You might want to practice asking these people (I'm assuming this is more an issue in discussions, based on your phrasing) why they believe what they believe. Doing this from a place of curiosity will help you determine whether the greater knowledge you're assuming they have is actually there or not. This will also give you more information to test your beliefs against.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:02 AM on April 5, 2013

I will pile on with the learn more about your interests to form opinions crowd, but I wanted to add that you should be sure to not confuse black and white thinking with having a well-formed opinion.

I notice that a lot of people that come off as being opinionated, aside from those usually featured on podcasts who are probably experts, tend to see things rather simplistically, boiling down complex issues to one essential element. They tend to be more emotional and 'going with their gut' than anything.

However, I have to admit that I am prone to overly nuanced opinions. . . so it may be that I'm too wishy washy myself.
posted by abirdinthehand at 8:55 PM on April 5, 2013

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