On Good Conversations

There are two ways that you can talk to another person about something you disagree about. You can debate, this is where each person tries to “win” the argument by whatever means available, or you can have a conversation, which is where you both work together to seek the truth.

Most people, when speaking to another human, follow the first method. They take the weakest possible interpretation of the other persons argument, straw manning it and attacking this weak version. They do this to re-enforce their pre-existing prejudices about that person and to affirm their own beliefs(and sometimes for an ego boost in-front of others).

In a good conversation the two people will still try to pick holes in the other persons argument, but first they will make sure they have the strongest possible interpretation of that persons argument. They will “steel-man” the others argument. The reason they do this is that they are simply trying to get to the truth, to the correct, best argument, best position etc. It doesn’t matter who’s argument wins, all that matters is that the strongest argument wins. They want to do this because it is better to be on the right side of a debate, then to be on the winning side. Winning points in a public debate is great, but knowing the truth and living by it is better.

A good way to engage in conversations like this is to establish from the outset that you are both on the same team, and both have the same shared value of wanting to know what is the truth. You can “pace their argument” by laying down what you think the strongest version of their argument is and letting them correct you. This lets them know that you take them seriously, have intellectual integrity and come to the conversation in good-faith. They can trust you not to use a cheap logical fallacy like a slippery slope or appeal to authority. Resist the urge to fall back in to those bad habits, it can be very tempting, happen unintentionally and completely derail a conversation in seconds.

The key is this: you are not enemies(debate). You are fellow inquisitors, bouncing ideas back and forwards. Pitting your best arguments against theirs, with the shared hope that at the end the truth will be the last argument standing. So you can both walk away with a better belief to live your life by.

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