Debating without Dividing

It’s difficult to know who your friends are until you start talking about politics and religion. For me, it’s not important that everyone agrees with my philosophies and positions. I’m not looking for agreement (at least not initially or primarily). They can disagree, they can get angry, they can even yell. For me, the question is, where will they be tomorrow, after the discussion has passed? Will they come back and sit at my table? Or will they avoid my phone calls? Will they help me when I’m in need? Will they pretend they don’t know me?

It’s not easy for two people to completely agree on anything, much less matters of an eternal or global nature. What can be even more difficult, especially these days, is to get two people to talk about something, anything important, that they don’t agree on. There’s too much personal baggage invested in these issues to risk looking wrong or foolish, or even worse, to be forced to admit to your own potential error.

Here’s a few things to remember when confronting the opposing party:

1. Be patient. Only fools give up and walk away.

They think it makes them look like they understand something that no one else does, or that it makes some sort of irrefutable point. The truth is, walking away can be a sure sign that you no longer have the ability to defend your position.

2. Be prepared for the possibility that you’re wrong.

Even on the issues that are most important to you. The most important issues are the ones that you should be the most ready to be wrong about, because staying wrong could have dramatic consequences. If you’re wrong, it’s much better to know about it ASAP.

3. Remember that you and your position on an issue are not the same thing.

If your position winds up being weak, that doesn’t mean that you’re weak too.

4. Fight with your opponent, not against him.

Sound like the same thing? It’s not. The best debates are the ones where both parties are arguing their positions with a singular goal of getting to the root of the matter, even if it means they are wrong. The best teams are the ones who can disagree without being in disarray.

5. Winning a debate when you’re wrong is evil and destructive.

It’s like eating poisoned food because you don’t want to insult the cook. Except you’re the cook. If the food is giving you diarrhea, the polite thing to do is to warn others not to eat it.

6. Finding out you’re wrong is a victory.

No one likes being wrong. Being wrong is a failure to be sure, but only a small one. The truth is, everyone is wrong way more often than they are right, even if they don’t want to admit or realize it. So finding out that you’re wrong is a much greater victory than being wrong was ever a failure, and it’s an opportunity to celebrate. Unless you choose to hide it, to bury it, to continue being wrong for the sake of looking right. There aren’t very many travesties more grotesque. You discovered an error, now you can correct it. This is an incredible opportunity, and anyone worth your time will celebrate with you.

7. Never argue with an ignoramus.

This is someone who ignores any and all valid arguments you might make, or otherwise has a total inability to understand them. I sympathize for the latter case, but in either case, this is a bad situation to be in. Sooner or later one of you, probably the ignoramus, is going to get emotional and make a scene. This is a difficult situation to get out of without looking like an idiot yourself. Better to back out before it gets to that point. My father always said, “Don’t argue with a fool. People might not be able to tell the difference.” Between you and the fool, that is. These arguments are a complete waste of energy, and are often harmful to both of you, as well as for anyone who is observing.

8. Don’t act like an ignoramus.

If someone makes a valid point, admit it. Don’t pretend like you don’t understand, or that the point isn’t as valid as the maker thinks. If the point is valid, admit it. If the point is a knock out, commend its maker for it. You’ll get far more respect from pointing out your opponents strengths than from dismissing them, and you’re likely to be treated in kind. Pretending that a good argument is worthless, is only going to make you look like a fool to anyone who is wise, and it will do harm to anyone who isn’t.

9. Respect your opponent’s speaking time.

A good debate is as much about sharing and consideration as it is anything else. It’s okay to interrupt occasionally, but don’t do it very much, and be sure to show ample consideration for your opponents arguments. They’re not likely to listen to you if they don’t see you listening to them. The most persuasive people on earth not only know how to structure a solid, logical argument; they also listen generously, and give time kindly and abundantly to their opponent. This approach will turn most opponents into friends and allies, who will listen and often wind up agreeing with you if your argument is good.

10. Know when to stop talking.

This one is similar, but it’s about being respectful of your opponent’s listening time. There’s something to be said for the elevator pitch concept. Learn to make your arguments as short and concise as possible. When it’s your turn to speak, don’t ramble endlessly. Your words will quickly melt into a gel of meaningless babble, and no one will understand what you’re trying to say, much less agree with you. Build your point and work towards a finishing point. The shorter your argument is, the easier it will be to grasp. More people will listen and understand. Moreover, you’re likely to be given the floor more often if people know that they can trust you to be respectful of their time.

If everyone held truth to be more important than anything else – more important than being right, more important that looking good or smart, more important than not feeling embarrassed – debates would be much shorter, much more effective, and much more meaningful and fulfilling. And I’m talking about the real truth, the one you don’t know all of; not the notions and ideas that you’re convinced are true in your own mind. Just like the designer has to learn not to get too attached to his designs, or the architect to his drafts, we would all be much better off if we would learn not to get too attached to our own concepts, and embrace the idea that the world around us is probably much more beautiful and inspiring than our tiny little minds could have ever imagined. The more you push on the box around you, the bigger it will get.


One comment for “Debating without Dividing”

  1. Looks like you are speaking from experence here…this well-written piece is a great reminder to be tolerant and open minded as we approach relative-laden holidays. It also reminds me of what Ruth Bell Graham said when asked if she and Billy agreed on everything. She said that if two people always agreed on everything, one of them would be unnecessary!

    Posted by Chrystal Safari | November 18, 2008, 4:25 pm

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