How To Have A Productive Debate Regarding Controversial Topics

The current United States presidential election is one of the most controversial and vitriolic political races of all time, consisting of insulting, interruption, misunderstanding, and poor communication. The US is on the brink of massive change if either party wins, so there is a great motivation to attempt to make sure you’re on the right side of history. The problem with current debate and conversation is that motivations and how one conducts themselves in a conversation is mostly intellectually harmful, unproductive, forceful, irresponsible, and overly-aggressive.  

Political debates happen on an everyday basis. You may be trying to convince someone else to vote for your party’s candidate, or debating issues of immigration, taxation, or abortion. It can be very difficult to change someone’s mind about something you believe so intently to be false. Studies at the Pew Research Center show that voters in the US over the past two years have stayed consistently one-sided. Only about 9% percent of Republicans began to lean Democratic, and only 9% Democrats began to lean toward Republican beliefs. In that same time, only 7 % returned from one party to another. 

What Is A Productive Conversation?

A productive conversation or debate is one that both sides benefit from in some way. If you end up having a conversation in which your ideas conflict with another person’s, then that’s a good thing; it means there is certainly something you can learn from that person. Examples of productivity are: learning something, finding the truth about a matter you disagreed on, finding any common ground, or simply not allowing the conversation to become hostile. If you can accomplish any of those things, then you are being productive.  

The Benefits Of A Having A Productive Conversation

Having a productive conversation means you are not only practicing your skills or increasing your knowledge, but, if the conversation is held with these main ideas in mind, it can benefit your partner as well. On top of this is the importance of the output of the conversation. The best way to come up with new ideas and world-views is not through limiting your frame of reference, but to expand it as much as possible with as much knowledge as possible. You can see this happening very often when you are trying to solve a problem, maybe it’s math, maybe it’s the word choice in your essay—you become stuck, unable to work out the problem no matter what you do or try. When this happens we usually turn towards someone with more expertise, or someone who can interpret the problem differently. That interpretation of the problem could be based on life experience, insights, or ways of thinking that you could not have come up with on your own. This works exactly the same way with conversation and debate, it’s just that we don’t always realize it. 

Motivations Matter

In the book How To Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, they write about techniques and approaches to conversation taken from the perspective that debate and conversation are very tangible skills you can learn and practice. The two of them  write about different motivations you have going into a conversation. Motivations are important because they affect what strategies or evidence you may use to try to convince someone of something. They also cite some more common goals, like reaching mutual understandings, learning from each other, finding truth, intervening (trying to change someone’s mind). “You may have no particular goal, switch goals mid-conversation, or a very defined goal,” Boghassian and Lindsay write.  “In each case, if you first identify your conversational goal(s), then your path will become much easier.” A second but still immediate and vital step is to build rapport and respect between you and your conversation partner, everytime, especially if you disagree with them.

Biases

Biases are present no matter who you are, where you are, or who you are talking to. Biases are the favoring of one idea, group, person, thing etc. that is based on prejudice or close-mindedness. There are many types of biases, but confirmation bias is a very common one. It is the tendency to search for and interpret new evidence about a topic as evidence directly for our beliefs even if the evidence doesn’t actually support our beliefs, and it happens a lot, even though you may not realize it. 

Confirmation bias is harmful because it can lead you to never seek out or attempt to understand information that challenges your beliefs. For example, you come across an investment opportunity in the form of a risky startup, you decide to do some research before you sink your life savings in, so you read a couple articles about the company all telling you that its doomed to fail within a year, but because you want to get rich and because you think the company looks stable enough, you keep reading until you find one article, out of the dozens telling you not to invest, that says this company will have huge growth potential. You then invest every last dime into this company thinking it will sky rocket, but of course, like the majority of the evidence said, it failed and you lost all of your money. This effect is dangerous in conversation because it can and will limit potential correct or beneficial knowledge. 

What You Can’t Say, Is Probably True

In his essay “What You Can’t Say” Paul Graham writes about what you cannot say during a certain time in history. In the paper he states that over the course of human history people we have always had opinions and ideas that were considered socially unacceptable. “If you could travel back in a time machine, one thing would be true no matter where you went: you’d have to watch what you said. Opinions we consider harmless could have gotten you in big trouble,” Graham writes. “I’ve already said at least one thing that would have gotten me in big trouble in most of Europe in the seventeenth century, and did get Galileo in big trouble when he said it — that the earth moves [around the sun].” He continues, “It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.” 

Graham’s main point being that when someone states an idea or has a proposal that makes you feel angry or upset, it could contain a great deal of truth. He gives many examples in the essay of this phenomenon, writing “No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad.” However, if you were to say something like what Galileo said during his time, a heresy that held scientific merit but opposed the doctrine of the church, you would have been shunned, ostracized, or in his case, imprisoned. But Galileo’s seemingly outrageous theory was true. This is to say, when you are speaking to someone, and they give you an answer or state an opinion that seems ridiculous, examine it further to make sure you really understand it because it might contain valuable truths. 

Building Rapport

Building rapport is a very normal part of conversation, and takes place virtually anytime you start a talking to someone. Even if you have known someone for a long time, or have already built a relationship, you still ask questions like: “How are you?” “How is your day?” “Are you okay?” “ What is it that you wanted to talk about?”  Even though these questions may seem unimportant, they are used to signify to others that you care about what they have to say. These questions are the foundation of whatever future dialogue you want to collectively pursue. Maya Kleinberg, a leader at Franklin’s SPICE club (a place where students gather to discuss current events and issues) says, “respect is a really important aspect of discussing [current events]…we like to make sure that people understand, even if we might not agree with them, that they have a voice.” If you have a mutual respect for each other, then communication will automatically steer away from insults or destructive phrasing. 

Summary

Current conversation and debate can seem intimidating, harmful, and not worth your time, but now more than ever it is a very important factor of life. Motivations, biases, the words you use, and respect all affect your ability to effectively communicate and collaborate with others about important issues. Keep an open mind, ask questions, work to resolve your biases, and work towards attempting to understand other points of view. 

Knowing how to have a productive debate is especially important in today’s climate.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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