The Culture of Discussion

I made this list so that everybody can start working on the way they participate in discussions. Normally, people on my blog are not in need of such basic advice, but sometimes folks come by who have very poor debating skills but who are unaware of how worthless they make themselves as discussion partners.

So here are some suggestions as to how one can become a better discussion partner:

1. Try to read or listen to what people are saying carefully. Then think about what they said. And only then respond.

2. If a comment confuses you, don’t protect yourself by rolling out some stock response. Ask questions. Try to link the comment to its context.

3. Lecture less and ask more. Unless people have specifically solicited your opinion on a subject, don’t lecture them about it. It antagonizes people every single time.

4. Avoid triviality. When you say self-evident things in a pompous long-winded manner, people do not tend to respond well. They think you are suggesting they are idiots.

5. If people exhibit an emotional response to your words, you need to make an attempt to understand the nature and the vector of their affect.

6. Avoid the “It is, too” discussion strategy because it’s childish. A discussion is supposed to progress. If you respond to every argument from your opponent with the same statement, you will soon start sounding like a petulant 2-year-old. Either try to take your arguments further or abandon them if they are failing to convince. Simply repeating something will not convince anybody of anything.

7. Try to be tactful. Don’t lecture autistics on autism, Jews on anti-semitism, gays on homophobia, blacks on racism, and women on gynecological visits unless you are autistic, Jewish, gay, black, or female. Doing this makes you sound like a douche of major proportions. It doesn’t matter if you read an article on autism. That didn’t make you an expert overnight.

8. Avoid retelling to people what you think they said. Avoid “so are you saying. . .” as much as possible. Either quote the exact words you are responding to or simply ask your discussion partner to clarify what s/he said.

9. Stop assuming and start asking.

10. And the most important rule: People don’t normally choose to engage in activities if they get nothing out of them. Ask yourself, “what it is that I offer to others as a discussion partner?” A hint: if your answer is “I’m educating them about. . .”, you are probably really bad at debating. Now ask yourself again, “What it is that I offer to others that they actually want? How do I know that they want this?”

Of course, if your one and only goal is to antagonize people and make them avoid you (which is quite a worthy goal and one I can understand very well), then feel free to disregard this advice. In all other situations, take it to heart.

I have participated in discussions both online and in RL that have literally transformed my life. My discussion partners have enriched me in ways they probably are not even aware of. But it only happened because I allowed myself to be reached by new information and different points of view.

Happy discussion times, everybody!

P.S. Feel free to add if I missed anything.

23 thoughts on “The Culture of Discussion”

    1. This is always a way of substituting the points another person made with what you want them to say to make the discussion easier for yourself. It’s an act of verbal aggression because you assign to people comments they never made and then expect them to justify themselves.

      This is something that happens to me all the time on this blog. People say, “So you are saying. . .” and attribute some huge barbarity to me. Of course, when I ask to demonstrate where I said anything of the kind, they start telling me all about their assumptions and conclusions.


  1. You know, you once said you do not recognize trolls well enough. You have one now — they’re not just socially inept, they know these rules well enough; they just opt not to follow. Oxygen thieves.


  2. I disagree with (4). Someone else’s emotional response to your words is not your responsibility. [ducks]


    1. Some people have the idea that how they communicate doesn’t matter. It’s a strange philosophy: the idea of throwing words out there and not caring what happens to them after that.

      I’m prone to doing that myself, sometimes, but at least I know exactly what I’m doing.

      The majority of people who get into a mindset that others are responsible for how they receive your words are playing a fascinating game of Russian Roulette.


      1. This dictum, “you are not responsible for other peoples’ responses to your words” is close to sacred text in contemporary pop psych, it seems. But, it flies in the face of an older concept: tact.

        There is a reason, for instance, that people think before they speak, think about tone, think about context, etc. I have been to a few funerals this summer, for example, and one really wants to think about what one says; there are some phrases which may be comforting to one but hurtful to someone else, at least that close in time to the event. Etc., etc.


        1. The “you are not responsible for other peoples’ emotions” is useful when we are talking about somebody who has to offer resistance to an emotionally abusive person. Those people who have nervous breakdowns, migraines and bouts of weeping because you dare not to dedicate your life to being their punching bag. It helps to remind yourself that it’s their choice to weep and be miserable if you decided not to be blackmailed into yet another unreasonable demand. So this is a maxim that is useful for handling emotional abusers.

          However, if we are talking about establishing a connection (of any sort) with a normal person, not an abuser, we have to be tactful and attentive to their responses if we won’t that connection to happen. I know somebody who has a very intense and painful response whenever her father is mentioned. It obviously isn’t my fault that she has a painful relationship with her father. But if I start badgering her with questions about her father, I will be an insensitive jerk and she will be right to avoid me.


        2. I see it this way. Someone pops up and says, “I throw punches all the time. I’m note responsible for how someone reacts when I throw a punch!”

          I say, “Sure you’re not, if you want to see it that way. But if you don’t have enough peripheral awareness to realize what sort of counter-punch you might attract, or why you might attract one, then nobody else is responsible for you either.”


          1. “I say, “Sure you’re not, if you want to see it that way. But if you don’t have enough peripheral awareness to realize what sort of counter-punch you might attract, or why you might attract one, then nobody else is responsible for you either.””

            – Absolutely brilliant!!!


  3. Re your troll, he really does think he is teaching, has superior wisdom, and so on — and I have the impression he thinks that as a man, he knows more. As someone said to me today in another context: “if there is mutual respect you can almost always find points of agreement, discussing stuff with someone who assumes they know better is impossible.”


    1. The structure of a troll’s consciousness is the same as that of a sado-masochist. He lacks access to emotion, so he tries to get others to exude it for him, so that he can feel emotion. This is a dependency structure.


        1. I wrote a reply to this but it went missing. What I said was the psychology of the troll is the same as that of the patriarch. They both shut off emotion in order to gain a superior position of power, but this comes with hidden costs. At first it seems to be a good formula, but in time the costs are loss of relatedness, loss of intimacy, loss of emotional awareness. Patriarchy and trolling prove to be extremely costly. Those who will not admit this to themselves take their mental illness to a new level by trying to coral women into dependency relationships with them, so that women have no choice but to become emotional suppliers. This is sick.


  4. “The ‘you are not responsible for other peoples’ emotions’ is useful when we are talking about somebody who has to offer resistance to an emotionally abusive person.”

    AHA, so that is what it is for. In that context, it makes sense. What I notice in real life, though, is that it is most often used to justify emotionally abusive people: they are not responsible for the effects of their words and/or manipulations since “everyone is responsible for their own feelings” (and, of course, pointing out responsibility is “blaming”).


  5. @Muster, slightly upthread — yes, very good points. Dependency structure is a good phrase to have on one’s mental clipboard, so as to notice these things, put the right name on them.


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