Sunday, February 27, 2011

What is a Discussion ?

What is a discussion? Contrary to what many people think, a discussion is not just two persons having different opinions and talking about it. That's just talk.

A discussion is talking with the goal of finding the truth. The truth will often be already covered by one of the two opinions. In that case the one person is right and the other one is wrong. Often it turns out that neither has been right and the truth is yet to be discovered; often by discussion as a means of accomplishing this together.

So, the first point I make here is this one:
Don't believe people who tell you that all opinions are equally correct or that somehow everybody is right in his own way. This is wrong. In fact, if that were true we should stop having any discussion right now.

The second point I want to make is that there is exactly one way to have a discussion:
1) Finding common ground
2) Logical reasoning, based on the common ground
3) Determination of the one single element in the chain of predications that is not agreed on
4) Repeatition of the process for that isolated predication until either agreement or a fundamental disagreement is found.

The usual way to work this through is to allow one person to moderate the discussion and present his logical reasoning after a common ground has been found. This is often the step that doesn't work. If both persons try to moderate the discussion (often misunderstood or misused as dominating the discussion), chaos follows. This is especially true if both persons start at step (2), assuming incorrectly that the other one agrees on their "obviously true" assumptions.

As both people try to execute step (2) at the same time, the discussion becomes two people talking to themselves and not talking to each other. They are repeating their own opinions and reasonings, wondering why the other one doesn't understand. But the reason the other one doesn't understand, is that he doesn't listen, as he is busy reasoning himself.
As both persons find themselves un-understood, they keep focusing on the assumptions, that they assume are 'obviously' correct. This leads to the typical repetition of opinions in front of each other. Very boring to watch and even more boring to execute.
A good technique to avoid this is to force yourself to actually listen to your partner by repeating the quintessence of what he just said prior to every of your answers.

The intermediate goal of a discussion is to strip away all those things that you agree on, to find the one point you disagree on. Sometimes this point of disagreement is fundamental. Like for example: "I think humans are selfish" vs. "I think humans are altrusitic".
In such cases only research helps. If research isn't available, an agreement, of a sort, is still possible.
"We agree that if X was true, you were right. And we agree that if X were wrong, I were right".
At that point a discussion is finished. You would need additional information to continue.

Often, however, the process of finding the one point of fundamental disagreement makes one or both persons see where they were wrong. That would be the "happy end" of a discussion. You found the truth - together. Until a third person disagrees.

If you find yourself in the discussion with somebody who does not seem to know the process of discussion, there are two things you can do.

1) Play Socrates. Socrates has become famous for doing discussion by asking questions only. At first, his questions lead to a common ground. After that, the questions lead the discussion partner towards a logical inconsistency in his reasoning. Alternatively, Socrates himself finds out that he actually agrees himself and is convinced.

2) Ask questions until a common ground is found. Start presenting you logical reasoning, forcing it upon the other. Obviously, this is not as elegant as (1) and doesn't work with people who have a low self-confidence.

Lastly let me warn you about trolls. Both deliberate and undeliberate ones. They will sabotage the finding of common ground and logical reasoning by distracting you.

You see, you were just about having the troll to agree on something that could be used as common ground. The troll is about to have to say "I agree", because denying what you just said would be utterly ridiculous even for him. Often he unconsciously interprets this as weakness and instead of agreeing, he starts talking about another aspect of the subject that he knows you disagree with. At that point there is not much you can do. If you give in, you will forever be running circles.

A second way to sabotage a discussion is to put something highly controversial, but unrelated into an answer. If you make the mistake of going into that, you are changing subject yourself. Bottom line is that there is no way to discuss with somebody who doesn't want to find the truth and considers everything, that doesn't help him convince you, unhelpful.

A third way is to have lengthy monologues. I should know, because I tend to do this myself. But it is a mistake. Focus on what you really want to say at a point in time and try to keep it as short as possible. Always allow the other person to interrupt you. He might want to tell you that your last point is exactly what he disagrees on!! If he interrupts you too often and without reason, tell him.
Do not fill your talking time by repeating your opinion or parts of it over and over or by covering several predications with one overarching jump. You are interested in finding out on what predication, exactly, the two of you disagree!

A rather nice discussion between two people with fundamentally different opinions on a very complex topic can be found here. Unfortunately, they don't have enough time to really follow through. Notice, how Jon Steward tries to find common ground already with his very first sentence.


  1. Few very true points. It makes me tired sometimes when all parties in a so-called 'discussion' claim that there are "no wrong opinions" or that all opinions should be equal and they have a right to be heard and accepted for theirs, no matter what; no they don't.
    They can expect to be respected as people but their opinions can be worthless to a discussion.

    For an opinion to stand as such in a serious discussion, it needs to pass the most basic test and follow some ground rules - like logic or consistency. if not, all you get is a melting pot of more and less personal ideas and feelings with the odd wild emotion mixed in and no intention to actually discuss a matter properly.

    or like you said, there can't be any bottom line, just a "agree to disagree" at best. I don't expect every discussion to reach a goal - it can be interesting to discuss a problem with no clear outcome. but it should be done with a certain dedication and common interest, or not at all imo.
    trolls obviously already fail the most basic test.

  2. I'd put a step in before everything else: agreement of terms. I can't tell you (because I haven't been counting) how many times I've found that what started off seeming to be a major disagreement, quite a long time later, was found to be 99% disagreement on terms. I would separate this from the assumptions step since in my experience this is what causes problems at the assumption step.

    For example: Casual.

    As for opinions, I think we should all feel free to give our opinions, and accept if they are challenged and found lacking. Or we could better divide "feeling" opinions and "fact" opinions. If I say I don't enjoy something, that's a "feeling" opinion (I admit, this could be factual, but it's personal), but if I say a class in only played by 14 year old fags, that is a "fact" opinion, and if I had to guess, probably wrong.

  3. Some very good points here. But apparently easier in theory than in practic. I can point out dozens of instances where you filled the comment section of my blog with either "highly controversial, but unrelated" or "lengthy monologues". I remember one thread where out of 25 comments you had written 12, and together they were longer than the original post and all the comments from other people together.

    So, are you telling me here that this was deliberate?

  4. Klepsacovic, I agree. People need to specify what they actually discuss. Also, a lot of problems come from semantics.

    Tobold, not everything I ever wrote on your blog was a 'discussion'. The instance you describe was about WoW subscriber numbers stagnating. If I remember correctly, you didn't believe me and thus I made comment after comment with ever more links and proof.

  5. It sounds like we need an even earlier step: indication of intent to discuss. Or not discuss.

    Unfortunately, the word "discuss" has instead become a troll indicator, such as "WoW is the worst game ever. Discuss."

    We need a new word.

  6. I would say your definition of "discussion" sounds more like a definition of "debate".

    I agree that discussions are more formal and pointed than mere conversations, but you can certainly have discussions about abstract or spiritual topics that defy logical reasoning, and searching for specific areas of disagreement are not the goal.

    I'm not even sure you can say that a universal goal of a discussion is necessarily "truth", any more than you can say that the universal goal of the human experience is "happiness".

    Perhaps "awareness" or "understanding" would be more appropriate than "truth", since they are more relative to the individual participants experiences, and don't presume that there is a single right or wrong answer.

    Questions that lend themselves to discussion by nature do not have right or wrong answers. If you are "teaching" someone a known or accepted fact or concept, that's not a discussion.

    Proving an unknown and bringing it closer to fact is a matter for science or logic, not discussion. Discussion may be involved in determining how best to proceed, but being adept at convincing someone of a "fact" does not make that "fact" any more or less factual.

    Aphorism: "...the intensity of conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing over whether it is true or not."

  7. "A good technique to avoid this is to force yourself to actually listen to your partner by repeating the quintessence of what he just said prior to every of your answers."

    Good advice! I've had *WAY* too many "discussions" on ideas or theoretical topics with people who do not want to eliminate common ground and reach truth.

    I think that's the main problem, most people that have a contrary view have no plans to actually investigate a different answer or a greater truth, they make it personal a conflict.

    These people are too concerned with holding up their side of the "fight", and by the time we've repeated ourselves over and over again, they are even less likely to submit (even if they finally take out the earplugs and see things in perspective).

    Then I become the one who "can't drop things" or is "prone to arguing" when all I really want is for us both to actually progress in the conversation to some type of truth and common, logical and solid ground.

    It can become incredibly frustrating!