I've recently had a very interesting discussion with some friends. We talked about a lot of stuff and I don't want to go into detail about the topics we've discussed, but rather some thoughts about discussions.
Types of discussions
There are many ways people talk to each other:
- Small Talk is about being together and feeling fine. We do it when we are together waiting for something or just because it feels good. It's not so much about content which show discussions about weather, fashion or sitcoms, although the amount of information you exchange varies quite a lot.
- Feelings and talking about feelings is difficult, but important. Although I tend to say it's like small talk, but I don't want to go into detail here.
- Teaching is a situation where one person knows more than another person in some topic he (or she) teaches the other.
- Learning is either the other side in the teaching situation or learning together. I think it is fundamentally different and deserves an own bullet point because in the teaching situation, the teacher leads the conversation. In the learning situation you don't have somebody who leads the conversation. It's a free flow of (hopefully) constructive thoughts with the aim to get a new ability as a group.
- Moral or Political Discussions are some sort of learning, but in contrast to learning in the sense that you get another ability or get to know some more facts, the aim is on evaluating how to weight those facts. Discussions involve a learning part, but the core is about putting things together. So it is not mainly about what could be done but what should be done and for what reasons.
What's special about discussions?
Discussions involve some aim. That aim might be
- What is the best way to explain XYZ? What does best mean in this context?
- What should we do in situation ABC? What is to consider for what reasons?
But very much of the conversations that are labeled as "discussions" feel rather like small talk for the following reasons:
I think to have a meaningful discussion you need to have a partner who is not of your opinion. For political discussions this means the following are NOT meaningful statements:
- I want everybody to be able to find a job (or shorter: Fight unemployment)
- I want to make less dept
- I want everybody to be able to live a healthy live
- I want to help families
- I want everybody to be happy
All these three statements are statements that everybody could agree with. But you get reasonable statements when you tell how to do so.
You can also talk about the "order": I want to make less dept, but when young families have to pay more than 20 Euro per year more it is not acceptable. Of course, that's still much to vague, but I think you get the point. Telling what you value might help people to intuitively decide with which person they could rather identify, but it is not enough to name reasons.
Another important part of a meaningful discussion is that it should in theory be possible to change the mind of the other person. This is the reason why I've called it "discussions with friends". In contrast to the truth-finding "discussions" you have in science, you don't need to be able to say what observations could falsify your theory. But if you go into a discussion and you know that it is impossible that the other - no matter how good he makes his point - convinces you of his opinion, you're actually not having a discussion. You try to teach them. (And it's a bad type of teaching.)
Techniques to take most out of discussions
It is difficult to be open minded in a good discussion. You might need to end
a discussion and think through it some time after you had it. Because we tend
to defend a point of view when we begin to defend it, no matter how good the other
makes his point. It is very difficult to honestly say: Yes, you're correct. That
changes the case and probably my opinion.
And you should not say so too fast. Some people are charismatic, some can speak or write very good. When you hear a new argument the first time, you might have difficulties to find a correct counter argument. But when you're with friends you should be able to say:
That's the first time I've heard that. I have to think about it.
or something like
I've never seen it from that perspective.
People like to teach and this makes them feel more comfortable discussing with you. You don't give up your opinion with statements like these, but it's simply being honest.
Speaking of honesty, there is a similar DON'T: Don't say something like
Yes, I agree with you, but [Whatever he just said negated]
I hear this so often in political debates by amateurs who have read something about discussions. By agreeing you make it easier for your discussion partner to agree with you (he can't disagree when you agree with him, can he?), but it should be a honest way to agree. It's a very bad step to fake agreement.
Always - and that's not only related to discussions - try to think what and how the other thinks. Sometimes when a group discusses, a single person get's isolated and has to defend his point of view alone. That's ok. But don't make it worse for him:
- Give him enough time to think and to talk.
- Only one person and argument at a time. It's difficult to switch and to concentrate on two (or even more) separate discussions.
- Try to support him when he has trouble with finding the correct words or the best way to express himself. It is difficult to tell when you simply have to wait and give him some time to think and when you should try to support him.
Know when you're wrong
Changing opinions is difficult. Especially if you have them for a long time or when you've already defended them. It's a little bit like an investment. When you've already spend 6,000 Euro for an investment and there is a tiny chance that you will get what you want but a growing chance that the investment was just a bad idea and probability suggest to change the investment and rescue what's left, most people will not do so. Somehow we quite often tend to a all-or-nothing thinking which is suboptimal in many cases.
So, what can we do so to figure that out for ourselves? Sometimes it is impossible to do so while discussing, but after the discussion you can think about it:
- What arguments did I tell the others? How did I tell them? What were counter arguments? Are they valid? If so / not: Why?
- Are there arguments I've missed?
- Do I feel comfortable with my arguments? Why do I think they could be weak? What do I think are strong arguments? Do others also think that those arguments are strong?
If you're not sure about it, you can continue it. It should not be a simple repetition of arguments, but a new discussion with a new structure of arguments. If you're still not sure after many arguments, you can make a pro / contra list.
- It's not important what the majority thinks. However, it might be an indicator.
- Some arguments might simply be wrong. But don't make this choice too easily.
- Some arguments might be irrelevant. I tend to think "How does this impact my life?". If an argument has no impact or simply assumes an unrealistic situation, it might be irrelevant.
- You don't have to agree at the end. A honest disagreement where both sides understand the arguments of the other side is much better than a comprise that no side really thinks is good.
And I want to note that discussions might have many equally valid answers, whereas science has only one correct answer (which might be difficult to find / almost impossible to decide which thesis is correct, but there is only one).