When I was a kid, me and my friends played really rough with each other. Wrestling was one of our favorite things to do when we got together after school. It was a fun way to get out our aggression and resolve disputes with each other. If someone had a problem with someone else, they would just go at it for awhile and after fifteen minutes of that, we’d be too exhausted to remember what we were fighting over and everyone would be friends again. The point of our wrestling matches wasn’t to hurt each other and there was an unstated rule that it was not allowed to be too rough. As we matured, we developed more sophisticated ways to resolve our conflicts. Our wrestling matches were gradually replaced by civilized discussions. Although I haven’t wrestled with anyone in a very long time, I believe that roughhousing is the same kind of activity as an intellectual discussion and the same sort of rules apply.
Intellectual discussions have been compared to wrestling since ancient times. Plato was a champion wrestler and used this as a metaphor for the Socratic method. Some of his Socratic dialogues are set in wrestling gyms. In the book of Genesis, there is a story of Jacob wrestling with an angel that’s used as a metaphor for the struggle of faith. After that wrestling match, he was renamed Israel which means contends-with-God. The history of the Great Debate of ideas is filled with rough intellectual sparring matches between interlocutors. Just like in wrestling, the goal is not to destroy the opponent, but to demonstrate skill, and in the case of discussion, to find the truth or the best possible course of action.
In my lifetime, I’ve had the privilege of knowing people who are extraordinarily skilled at engaging in intellectual discussion, especially my good friend Daniel Henry. We can have heated debates over topics we disagree on like politics, religion, and technology and afterward, we’ve both learned something and we are still good friends. I’ve also had friendships break up primarily over ideas and values that were hard on me emotionally. Over time, I started to think about the rules of having good discussions because it’s an important part of my job and I’d like to have more of them with friends. Here’s five rules I can think of that are important for being a good partner in discussion.
Play to Play Again
Wrestling may appear violent, but it is actually a game played between cooperating opponents with a strict set of rules like chess. There is an unstated assumption that sportsmanlike conduct is more important than the contest itself. In a good wrestling match, both contestants come out as better people regardless of the outcome of the game. Developing good character from practicing good sportsmanship is more important than winning or losing. The same is true in intellectual discussions. A discussion is not an isolated event that decides the issue once and for all. Discussion is a game that is played over and over forever. Arguments have to be digested and tested through action for them to be believed. The world is always changing so arguments need to be constantly updated to stay relevant. If you practice good sportsmanship in discussions, people will be more likely to engage you in debate which will cause your arguments to become stronger and you will become more influential by reaching more people.
Let People Be Wrong
“The purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying.” – Alfred North Whitehead
A big reason why discussions become unhealthy today is that people simply aren’t allowed to be wrong. People sense that a wrong opinion about something can get them kicked out of their social circle or fired from their job. However, being wrong is an essential first step to finding out what’s right. Thomas Edison had to come up with thousands of designs for filaments before he made a working light bulb. It may seem wasteful, but the ideas that don’t work are necessary intermediate steps towards figuring things out. They are like the scaffolding of a building that’s discarded after it’s constructed. While the scaffolding won’t be included in the final product, you can’t build a skyscraper without it.
When the stakes for thinking are high, people will turn their brains off and just agree with whoever they think is in charge. This does a great disservice both to themselves and to the people in charge. Competent people surround themselves with others who are thinking through difficult problems and communicating honestly about their best understanding of the situation. Giving people the freedom to be wrong will open them up to the possibility of argument for play. There can be a lot of joy in taking a wild position on an issue just for fun and watching it crash to the ground and blow up in a spectacular manner.
Having a wrong opinion on something does not make you a bad person. Let people be wrong and they will be honest with you. People can only make connections with each other when they have permission to be honest.
Hold Onto Your Point of View
Some people are naturally very agreeable people and aren’t comfortable with confrontation. If I see someone is an agreeable person, I won’t try to argue with them and I’ll be more considerate of their feelings so they don’t have to be as assertive with me. However if you want to have good intellectual discussions with people, you have to be a bit disagreeable.
When I’m arguing against a position someone has taken, I want to argue against the strongest possible version of that position that we can possibly formulate. You should speak confidently and make bold and assertive statements, even if you think you might be wrong, as long as that is your honest point of view. Someone who is confident is not someone who believes he is one hundred percent correct, but rather someone who is sure he can correct himself quickly when he is incorrect.
A good discussion has a “ping pong” quality to it. When I hit the ball to you, I want you to hit the ball back to me so we can keep playing. If you take a position, defend it the best you can for as long as the conversation is productive. I want you to defend yourself and maintain your position of power. I think it’s a tremendous sign of respect when someone disagrees with something I’ve said because it shows they have listened to me, they trust me enough to share their honest opinion, and they think I’m reasonable enough to accept criticism of my views.
Don’t Do It Over Text
It takes a lot of emotional intelligence to engage with someone like this. It’s easy to go too far into a sensitive topic and hurt someone’s feelings or get too far into the details and bore them to tears. It’s important to take emotional cues from people so you can steer the conversation in a good direction. The best way to know if someone is interested in what you are discussing is their nonverbal communication. This is completely lacking over text.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a satisfying intellectual conversation over text. Irony doesn’t come through very well and sometimes I’ve accidentally made people mad when I was just kidding around. It’s easy for conflict to escalate in text because you can’t feel how your words affect the other person. There is an emotional numbness to text messaging that is just as dangerous as physical numbness. You can put your hand on the stove without even realizing it.
I think in general we should all stop having important conversations over text. It should just be for business purposes.
Let the Conversation Affect You
Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back – providing aid and comfort to the enemy. People who would be level-headed about evenhandedly weighing all sides of an issue in their professional life as scientists, can suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies when there’s a Blue or Green position on an issue. – Eliezer Yudkowsky
When I was a kid we used to play imaginary war games. One time I took out a mime gun and shot my friend and it didn’t affect him. “Tink! I have bullet proof armor.” So I got out increasingly bigger weapons and shot him with those. “Tink! It’s bazooka proof armor too.” Finally I set off a nuclear bomb at his feet. To my horror, he emerged from the mushroom cloud in my imagination completely unscathed and laughed at me. This kid was clearly invincible. The city was destroyed by radioactive fallout and the game was over. This kid was not very fun to play with.
To put this another way, it’s a terrible strategy to pretend like you have all the answers and nothing the person will ever say can change your mind. You will never influence anyone like that. It’s one of the great counter-intuitive truths of human nature that to be influential you must be vulnerable. To make a connection with someone you must be willing to be affected by what they say. Even when you’re in front of a crowd, you should be focused on their reaction and let that guide your tone and content. Without that connection, you are like a college professor giving a lecture for the third time of the day. People will engage with you like they would a YouTube video so you can’t blame them when they want to change the channel.
When someone makes a point, don’t just wave your hands and tell the person what they said is not important. Every time you do that the person will disengage a bit more because it gives them the sense you are not listening to them. They’ll put in less effort to their responses when they sense there is a low chance for a payoff. Listen to the other person, take in what they have to say, assess your true reaction, and then respond accordingly. Don’t be that annoying invincible kid on the playground.