Monday, June 18, 2018

The Lost Art of the Discussion

We have reached a point in our society’s history when a lot of very serious discussions need to be had about how we are doing things and whether or not existing patterns are working well enough to be continued.  In order to have those discussions, however, we are collectively in need of setting different parameters for communication than the ones used in recent years because, simply put, the discussion has become a lost art. 

In today’s world, it is difficult for a discussion not to instead become an argument and, in many cases, an assumption is made that arguing and discussing are the same thing.  So, let us begin by reaffirming the difference.  A discussion is defined as the action or process of talking about something, typically in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas; an argument, conversely, is defined as a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.  The difference, then, is that while an argument leads frequently to one side feeling as though it has won a debate, a discussion is designed to facilitate a middle ground. 

Synonyms for both terms further emphasize the disparity – argument/disagreement/dispute/fight vs. discussion/conversation/negotiation/dialogue.  This line of distinction is important because, when a topic is up for debate, if one side argues while the other attempts to discuss, the end result is often anger and frustration instead of progress toward resolution.  Given that all of the serious discussions that we need to have as a society are about polarizing issues, the lack of clarity on discussing vs. arguing has become a significant weakness to our society’s ability to implement changes to things that are not working.  From our highest political positions to social media platforms, the bottom line is that an argument implies straightaway that someone has to lose or to be wrong when, in fact, the really important issues weighing on our society demand give and take that should transcend such petty squabbles; and, sadly, there has been way too much arguing for far too long. 

Having a discussion requires both sides to distance themselves from all or nothing thinking.  Even when the rules of communicative engagement are well-defined, if one side comes into a discussion already convinced that there is only one right answer to any given question, then no discussion will ever really be had and progress will be arduously slow.  We see this quite often, for instance, with the vaccine debate in the United States.  It is challenging to say the least to create any sort of environment in which vaccine discussion can take place without it quickly devolving into a heated argument because both sides think they already know the right answer.  Unfortunately, the pro-vaccine side especially is notorious for adopting an accusatory tone with anyone who tries to present information that may conflict with their previously-established opinion; how is one to ever offer insight on the matter if the dominant, opposing stance is so strongly rooted in “vaccines are safe and necessary and anyone who does not vaccinate is a danger to us all”? 

The greatest danger of black and white thinking is that it makes everything polarizing.  Obamacare is either good or its bad; the proliferation of mass shootings is either a gun control problem or a mental health issue; vaccines are safe and necessary or unsafe and unnecessary; and the list goes on and on.  In each instance, there is plenty of room for discussion so long as there is a realization on both poles that such issues are not black and white at all. 

A discussion requires a suppression of the urge to get defensive; the moment that righteousness takes a foothold, the readiness to listen immediately decreases and constructive communication becomes less and less likely.  Be attentive, be open-minded, be honest about the potential limitations of your own opinion, be eager in your desire to find common ground, be cognizant of when a discussion should end or be paused, be thoughtful of other points of view (ask yourself questions to further entertain opposing ideas), and be willing to agree to disagree. 

Thomas Jefferson once said, “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”  With society’s modern complexities, it would be fair to state that deciphering which matters are of taste and which are of principle is no longer so easy.  Life is fluid and its challenges on a grander, societal scale have and will continue to shift over time.  To stand hard and rigid like a rock lays the groundwork for a fixed and finite mindset that is an enemy of collective and personal development.  Perhaps, then, while respectfully acknowledging the virtues in Jefferson’s quote, it would be better in 2017 to, “In matters of principle, stand like a tree” – to stand tall and firm, but to remain capable of growth and to allow yourself to sway in the face of necessary change.  If we can all agree to that, then we can start having necessary discussions.           

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