Useful discussions

“You’re saying that having beliefs is a bad thing?”
“I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier.”
Bethany and Rufus in “Dogma” (1999)

One of the hardest things I face is finding discussion partners worthy of having a discussion with. I don’t care of having my opinions confirmed, or of being “right”. I care about advancing my point of view, integrating different positions and neglected perspectives. Inching closer to the “truth”. But all to often, people argue for positions without knowing why. They are for or against something, but more because it “feels” right, less because they know good arguments for or against a specific position.

I have already written about good discussions, about what makes “good agreement” and “bad disagreement“. But a recent discussion about two common — in my view — misconceptions about gender and work, has made me think. I think there are different levels of discussions, of quality of discussions:

  • Level 1: Express
    On the first level, a person expresses what this person thinks or feels. It’s essentially dumping what this person has stored in his or her memory about a certain issue. There is no gain in knowledge.
  • Level 2: Explain
    On the second level, the other person asks questions. They might be good or bad, sophisticated or simple, but at the very least the person having a certain view is required to engage with his/her beliefs and arguments for these beliefs.
  • Level 3: Argue
    On the third level, there are actual questions to the validity of the person’s arguments. This person is required to react to criticism, to defend one’s position. These might be the standard arguments of laypeople, or quite sophisticated counter-arguments and rebuttals.
  • Level 4: Create/Synthesize
    On the fourth level, the interaction that happens during the discussion is actually not only defending a prior position, it improves this position. It creates something new. Perhaps a slight modification or even an integration of opposites. But there is something there that was not there before.

Personally, I usually get only to level 2, at max to level 3. Take the latest discussion about discrimination in work settings (see here, albeit in German). There was some need to explain my position. Which is nice, at the very least, it got me to realize that when it comes to success in careers, I believe that it is “masculine” attributes that make the difference, not male genes. In short, it’s a certain kind of behavior that determines whether you can make it to the top of a company, not a certain plumbing/amusement park. But what I really want is level 3 and 4. Really do an actual discussion with a person that challenges me to argue, to defend (and advance) positions, or even better, to get to a position that was not reached before.

And that’s — in short — the main use of discussions. Advance one’s understanding of an issue, not serving one’s ego.

 

P.S.: The whole discussion about equality reminds me of a movie about Martin Luther (probably this movie) and one of the thoughts I had after viewing it: “In a world of hypocrisy and using “higher ideals” for one’s one ends, nothing is as scary as a person who truly believes.” Personally, I believe in equality, I can’t stop analyzing as objective as possible what I see, and I value actions over words. Boy, does the world suck sometimes.

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