In Defense of Nitpicking

Written on April 30, 2018

Owen Lynch and I were talking recently about the way we converse, and he said something I consider truly profound: “If you’re not disagreeing with me, you’re not listening.” I don’t think he was completely right; but of course, if I did, I wouldn’t have been listening.

The point he was making is that when he and I converse*, we are constantly disagreeing, and arguing with each other, and that this doesn’t reflect a deep rift in our relationship, or even any big disagreements. Instead, it reflects our active, critical engagement with what the other is saying.
* When we talk about anything. This includes stories about what’s going on in our lives, frustrations we’re having, thoughts we’ve had. Anything and everything is subject to argument.

In other words, for us, arguing is a form of active listening. Active listening* is a tactic used to resolve conflicts and communicate better. The idea is to make sure that you are really hearing what the other person is saying, and that you are clearly demonstrating that fact to them. It’s often practiced with tricks like repeating back to the other person what they said in your own words, so that you are forced to process it, and so they see that you have done so. Argumentative listening is, as far as I can tell usually seen as antithetical to active listening. I think however, that for some people, in some contexts, it can be exactly that.
* I’m not a therapist, or an expert in active listening. This is all based on what I’ve heard and what I’ve read on the internet.

Arguing, pushing back, nitpicking makes me a better listener for a couple of reasons. For one, finding objections helps ensure that I am thinking about what he is saying at more than a surface level. In order to argue with what Owen is saying, I have to be thinking about it critically enough to break down the details in my head, reconstruct them, and see problems in that reconstruction, or ways to look at it that aren’t immediately apparent. This usually necessitates engaging deeply in the story.

And for another, if I misunderstand something that he is saying, I will find out very soon. Because I will probably object to something he’s saying on the basis of my faulty understanding. He’ll notice that I’m not objecting to what he’s actually saying, but to something else, and clarify what he means.

On the other side of things, when I’m the one talking, every time he argues with the intricacies of what I’m saying, I can be sure that he is thinking about the intricacies of what I’m saying. I am assured that he’s paying attention and that he wants to engage with me. I can easily tell the difference between this and him just nodding along and saying “mhm” every once in a while.

By the same token I know that he is understanding what I’m actually trying to say. If he weren’t, his objections wouldn’t make sense. At the end of the conversation, I can be relatively sure he’s heard me, and heard me correctly.

Let me give you a taste of what I’m talking about. I’ve reproduced the relevant parts of a conversation I had with Owen literally while writing this post:

At the end of the excerpt, I realize that we were agreeing too much, and my brain goes instinctually into devil’s advocate mode. If I’m not disagreeing, I’m not listening.
I proceeded to argue against what we usually both hold to be true, that the web tech stack sucks.

When we can’t find anything big to disagree with, we can always find smaller, things.* Quibbling about such inconsequential things is usually derided as “nitpicking”. I think this term fits rather well, actually. It’s reminiscent of the social grooming performed by monkeys when they pick bugs out of each others’ fur to show they care. So too, we are picking the nits out of each others’ arguments, to show we care.
* Things like “Well yeah, but what about <trivial edge case>” and he’ll say “Right, yes. Other than that.” Just to establish that we’re on the same page, and we consider the edge-cases the same way.

This is all well and good, but I said I at the beginning that I don’t think Owen was completely right. Here are my caveats:

It’s important to remember that not everyone operates in the way I’ve described. This post isn’t a suggestion for everyone to follow; I’m not describing something that will necessarily improve your communication. It’s something that you might be inclined to do, or you might already be doing and not recognize it. If someone is upset by you employing this form of communication, this article doesn’t give you the moral or intellectual upper-hand. This isn’t the “right” way to communicate. Find a way to communicate that works for everyone involved.

In fact, there are a few ways that just understanding this difference of communication styles can help our communication:

For people who like to nitpick: Think about whether or not this is really the reason you’re nitpicking. Assuming it is, notice that some people might not hear your nitpicks as you listening to them, but rather as you challenging them, or they might even take it as evidence that you’re not listening. Recognize that what you’re really trying to do is hear and engage and show that you’re hearing and engaging. Your ultimate goal is not to object. Try to show that you’re hearing in a way that the person who’s talking will feel heard.

For people who have friends who are nitpicking, and it’s annoying you: They’re probably not trying to annoy you; they might not even really disagree with you. It’s possible they’re just trying to show you they’re listening. You can try to take it as such.

In fact, this can give us all a new way to understand disagreements. If someone’s arguing with me on the internet, it’s very easy for me to interpret it as anger and meanness, and be angry and mean in return. What if instead we expect to get push-back on everything we say, and see it as positive engagement? This is definitely something I’m going to try.

There’s a very good post by Alice Maz that goes into just these kinds of miscommunication, and she even uses a simmilar example at the beginning.

There are also traps you can fall into, which look similar to what I’m talking about but are generally unhealthy and mean. It’s not always easy to tell exactly the distinctions between them, but here are some things to watch out for:

  • Are you disagreeing in a respectful way?
    If you’re being mean-spirited about it, you’re probably not using this as a tactic to listen well.

  • Are you taking the nitpicks too seriously?
    If you’re using your nitpicks as actual arguments against the other person’s point, you’re doing it wrong. Nitpicks are a way of clearing up details and ensuring there’s the proper nuance in an argument. It’s important for everyone to know that what’s happening is nitpicking, and not serious objecting. When you start using nitpicks as arguments to discount someone’s position, that’s the type of nitpicking people hate.

  • Surface level nitpicks.
    Nitpicking should be used as a way to make sure you’re really engaging with the other person and what they’re saying. If your nitpicks are grammatical mistakes or some other surface-level feature, that’s just annoying. Even if you’re finding minor quibbles in their statements, you should still be engaging with the content of their narrative.

  • Do you have a moral or emotional issue with what the other person is saying?
    If you’re getting upset about the conversation, you should make it clear that you want to discuss things in a more serious way, and that there are feelings involved. I have made the mistake of expressing my frustration with someone in the form of nitpicks, and they completely missed that I was upset. They felt like I was just actively engaging.

  • Are you actually engaging?
    Nitpicking is a tool to help you engage, but it’s not a guarantee. If you get good enough at it, you can nitpick without really paying attention, so it’s still important to manually check and make sure you’re invested in the conversation.

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Well, I hope you haven’t gotten through this whole post without disagreeing with anything I’ve said. Argue with me in the comments!*
* Once I get commenting set up…


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