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Understanding the Nature of Discussion

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Jeff Borup is an Arizona State University alumnus and Syracuse University College of Law graduate. He is a member of the New York State Bar.

Five steps to becoming a more respected advocate and a more complete conversationalist.

Five steps to becoming a more respected advocate and a more complete conversationalist.


In today's competing world, it is becoming more and more difficult for new ideas to resonate on a level to effect noticeable and profound change. People are less willing to engage in delicate discussions with friends, family, or colleagues, for fear of causing offense or creating unwanted tension. Indeed, the partisan nature of American politics is inherently at odds with civil discourse. The communal manner whereby we receive information and the anonymity of the internet likely only contributes to this hesitation to engage. To some, it is just not worth the fight.

The idea that people tend to disagree about things, nonetheless, is nothing new, even before the rise of Twitter. But rather than run and hide from sensitive subjects, consider these five simple steps as a means to becoming a better orator, a more respected conversationalist, and to help assess when and under what circumstances an opinion should come to bear on any particular conversation.

On Becoming a More Skillful and Respected Conversationalist:

  1. Only Offer Your Opinion, If You So Choose, upon an Appropriate Invitation to do So
  2. Allow the Key Issue to be Summarized and Repeated to You
  3. Maintain a Listening Attitude
  4. Find Common Ground, and Beat it to Death
  5. Ensure Your Opponent Accurately Understands Your Position and Repeats it Out Loud Themselves

Warning: Don't Believe Everything You Have Been Told

While the purpose of this writing is to focus only the five steps above in order to become a more well-rounded speaker, it may also be beneficial to re-examine a few of the common misconceptions surrounding debate tactics:

"Respect Other People's Opinions"

The most common advice given in the context of debate preparation is for both participants to always respect the opinion of the other. While this is a suitable position to hold, in truth, there are a slew of opinions many of us simply have no tolerance for, and that is okay. One need not grant horrific ideas artificial reverence in order to engage in effective debate. This is not to suggest that we can all come to blows and cry foul at every turn. Rather, the point is that emotions, even in the context of a debate, are perfectly fine to feel. They are natural and can even be useful. What matters is that, in order to become effective, we are still able to employ a definite, measured technique that applies in every situation and no matter our subjective feelings about the topic of discussion. Feigning respect, however, need not be seen as the only way forward.

"Know All the Facts First"

Second, we are also universally cautioned to know the facts beforehand. The problem with this is that knowing everything is, frankly, impossible; and the need for such can lead to a slippery slope down the path of no resolution. Undoubtedly, the less educated we are on a specific subject, the more susceptible and hesitant we might be to combat certain assertions; but so long as we are understanding and accepting of those insecurities, there is no need to endlessly hit the books on every issue before jumping in with the sharks. The more we know, and the better prepared we are, the better; but also the more embedded in a potentially misguided way of thinking we might become.

For me, I try my best to become better acquainted with a variety of topics; but I am the first to admit that by no means am I an expert in any one of them, debate included. Indeed, rare can even a book can convey everything there is to know about a subject. But we can rest assuring knowing that through debate also comes knowledge; and it is our willingness to engage in these types of discussions openly, even absent a complete understanding of the facts, that truly allows for self-discovery and learning beyond that which might be achieved in a classroom setting.

"Don't Try and Change Other People's Minds"

Finally, we must also dispel with the notion that we should not try to change the other person’s mind. To the contrary, one of the primary objectives of getting into an argument is to bring the other side with you. Indeed, if we enter into a debate with no stakes, it is not really a debate at all, it is merely a conversation. And by treating it as such, we may fall victim to certain unintended consequences.

For instance: “What did you do at work today?”, when asked by your wife at the end of a long day, with the smell of dinner cooking on the stovetop, does not carry with it the same weight as when asked by a police officer as you are sitting in handcuffs underneath a bright light. One is intended to be innocently inquisitive, the other is inherently adversarial. It is only in our antagonistic states that we really begin to dig into the depths of how we feel and become informed as to the truth. We need the pressure associated with disagreement. By pretending otherwise, we may be missing out on an opportunity to better know ourselves, know the truth, and to further develop as individuals.

The Five Steps to Becoming a More Skillful and Respected Conversationalist

The following five steps are needed to become a better, more effective speaker, and to help determine when and under what circumstances your valued opinion should come to bear on any given conversation.

If you do not feel that the setting is appropriate, or you are simply not emotionally prepared to engage in that very moment in time, then pass.

If you do not feel that the setting is appropriate, or you are simply not emotionally prepared to engage in that very moment in time, then pass.

Step One: Only Offer Your Opinion, If You So Choose, upon Appropriate Invitation to do So

Your views are important. Indeed, they are the most significant aspect of who you are; they matter. As such, your deeply held beliefs should not be negligently tossed around at every sign of dissent. Consider your own state of mind first before you begin to argue. Understand whether you are mentally fit, physically able, and emotionally prepared, at this very second, to engage in a discussion.

Next, examine the setting you are in and the circumstances you find yourself under. Are those who are so willing to debate you also of sound mindfulness and concord? If you do not feel they are, or you are unsure whether the setting is ripe for such a discussion, then simply pass on it. Remember, you are under no obligation to change the world today, or ever. And there will no doubt be other, better opportunities to showcase your thoughts should you feel so obliged.

That said, should you elect to engage in debate right now, remember that the setting you are in is also constantly evolving. Be attentive to how the discussion sways back and forth, and note the severity of each swing. If things begin to get out of hand, then disengage. This is also permitted, and perfectly reasonable. If the tension becomes unhealthy, then choosing to remove yourself peacefully from the conversation is wise. It is respectable to bow out and allow for your opinion to be received at a later place and time. And if those with whom you are speaking refuse to take “no” for an answer, then rest assured knowing that it was not the type of exchange you wanted to be in in the first place, and continue to slowly divest yourself from further exposure.

Step Two: Allow the Key Issue to be Summarized and Repeated to You

Secondly, if you do decide to jump in, and the conversation appears to be one in which reasoned minds are willing to be equally exposed to new and offensive thought, then begin, in a calm, low-volume voice, by politely having the key issues summarized to you. If asked a question about what your thoughts are on a specific subject, have them restate their positions first. Let them reduce the facts to a specific issue, and ensure that they repeat the question to you.

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It is paramount that you have a complete and exact understanding of what you are being called upon to consider. Ask if there are any factors that you are specifically being asked not consider. Inquire as to whether the parties involved have already identified the assumptions upon which their opinions are based. No matter the technique you employ moving forward, before you even hint at an opinion of your own, ensure that you have a clear indication of what it is you are remarking on, and that all participants have made their conclusions on the topic known and assess how comfortable they are with the assumptions they have made.

Remain engaged in the conversation. Always be ready to jump in at any moment.

Remain engaged in the conversation. Always be ready to jump in at any moment.

Step Three: Maintain a Listening Attitude

The third step is to just listen, attentively. One of the key remembrances of any debate that I have been a part of, much to my regret, has been walking away feeling like I spoke too much. No matter the content of my words or the end result of any discussion, for some reason I feel more successful in those instances where I did little speaking. I have also noticed that for me personally, I tend to find myself sliding away from my initial stance the more I speak openly about it. I end up talking myself out of my own position.

While this shift in thought is certainly beneficial in the grand scheme of things, it has cautioned me to be an active listener, rather than an overly talkative lecturer. They key is to remain engaged in the conversation, ready to jump in at any moment. It is okay to let the other parties involved do most of the talking. Do your best to avoid the often irresistible temptation to interrupt. You should be positioning yourself to give advice that matters in one sentence, so keep the mindset that a better opportunity to speak up is just beyond the horizon.

One method you may use to calm your nerves in such a situation is to pretend you are hosting a family dinner party, but that your family is meeting your significant other’s family for the first time. It begins with a few cordial interactions, then a few drinks, and suddenly the issues of politics and religion rear their ugly heads. Rather than break into the escalating back-and-forth mid-sentence, act as though you are a moderator. As the host of the party, you are there to keep the peace. Stay focused on the tone of the discussion, and remember to compose yourself as a listener first, and be sure you are not the cause of any harmful, uncivil disruption.

Step Four: Find Common Ground, and Beat it to Death

After determining that the situation is ripe for discussion, and as the issue is being properly boiled down for you, you should also try and determine, while still remaining engaged as an active listener, whether you share any common ground. This is a surefire way to achieve instant credibility in any debate, but what is important is that your commonalities be discussed ad nauseum. Whatever similarities you have with those whom are speaking should be exhausted beyond measure.

Drawing out agreements in this manner will condense the issues even further, and the more pared down the substance of the issue is the more limited our opinion will be. The idea is to safeguard as much credibility as we can. The less exposure, the better. Stay on topic, of course, and be willing to occasionally concede points where appropriate, but part of the reasoning is for you to buy time to better understand what is being required of you in order to formulate a more well-thought-out position.

If you do concede a point that is being made, do it in such a way as to still present the appearance that you have given adequate thought to the point you are conceding. For instance, it is better to agree that:

"yes, in fact, I am reminded of several people who have generally neglected to consider the impact of that point…",

rather than simply admit that:

"you're right, I hadn’t thought of that...".

This makes it clear that you understand the contentious nature of the issue and that you have given a great deal of thought into it, even exploring the various perspectives at play.

Step Five: Ensure Your Opponent Accurately Understands Your Position and Repeats it Out Loud Themselves

The trickiest part is to actually embark on the journey of discussion and render an opinion that resonates with your audience. What I have found is that simply telling people the answer you want them to hear is, well, not the answer. The key is to encourage them make your point for you. And this can done by asking the right questions.

In law school, for instance, there are few instances where students are told the answer. It is a rare case to actually know what the law is, in part because it is ever-changing. But primarily, because law professors typically engage in a manner of instruction using what is known as the Socratic method.

The Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. While not every debater is a philosopher or professor of law, if we are able to approach debate with a greater eye towards listening and discovering information, we will not only be better positioned to interject our opinions in a more strategic manner, but we may just end up having our points made for us.

If questioning of this type is not your strong suit, simply make it a point to ensure that the other side has a clear understanding of what you are trying to say. Namely, make sure that they verbally state your position back to you. This sounds childish, but it is the only way to know for sure that your message was received in the manner intended. Sometimes hearing things out loud, and even speaking them ourselves, helps us to see them in a different light. This is a step that warrants a more extensive discussion, and is likely only to be perfected with many years of practice; but by mastering the art of reflective inquiry, and placing emphasis on the fact that your thoughts are at least being received as intended, your position will resonate on a deeper level with your audience. Even something as small as ensuring your idea is repeated back to you will, believe it or not, end up making you a better negotiator, a happier thinker, and more confident conversationalist.

Happy debating!

Let us Know Your Method

Are We Just Being Passive Aggressive?

© 2017 Jeffrey


sean bradley on April 10, 2018:

Sound advice. But why use the word "opponent"? Is conversation a competition? Do "debates" have to be won, or can we just learn from each other and clarify each others' ways of thinking?

John Ward from Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. on February 23, 2017:

I will most definitely be rereading this article again and again. It has clarified my thinking on the "Mechanics" of good and meaningful discussion, Thank You. John W

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 20, 2017:

Thanks for these very useful pointers for the civil debate. This idea is excellent: "if we are able to approach debate with a greater eye towards listening and discovering information, we will not only be better positioned to interject our opinions in a more strategic manner, but we may just end up having our points made for us."

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on February 20, 2017:

I think I have figured a few of these things out intuitively, after years of beating my head against a wall trying to debate with bull-headed people. The common ground aspect of your instructions is especially effective. I believe it allows the debater to gain the trust of his/her opponent, after which we can slowly infiltrate our own ideas. Great hub, very well written.

Jeffrey (author) from Chicago, IL on February 18, 2017:

These are trying times, but hopefully the false information and rumors you speak of will, in the end, be discredited before the damage sets in. Thank you for reading and I appreciate your thoughts.

Old Poolman on February 18, 2017:

Very nicely stated. These are strange times we are now living in this country. I have seen long time friendships destroyed and even families falling apart over political disagreements.

There has always been political disagreements in this country, and that is to be expected when dealing with millions of people. But never have I seen so many bitter arguments over political differences. Many of these arguments are actually caused by false information and rumors.

Your advice in this Hub is great and I would hope everyone who reads this hub thinks about the advice you offered.

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