How to Have an Honest Conversation
Approximate read time: 6-7 minutes
Conversation is broken in this country. I’ve written so much about the how the modern political correctness movement teaches, encourages, and almost forces wrong thinking. We even see how the current social justice trend seeks to not only silence opposing viewpoints, but - like an auto-immune disorder - to attack the very system by which we might correct it. Open, honest, and reasoned debate is the only means by which we progress as a society.
Honest conversation is the most important skill and value that we can teach young people, and all people for that matter. It is more important than any individual piece of knowledge because it is the operating system that allows a person to learn and grow.
Examples of healthy debate are almost entirely crowded-out by immature dogmatism and childish insult wars. University departments, mainstream media political pundits, and nearly every other facet of politics and entertainment (and these are increasingly becoming the same thing) remain more concerned with advancing an ultra-specific agenda and signaling their virtuosity than seeking truth or progress.
We have so few examples and instruction on how to engage and debate one another in a health and productive way that I felt I had to write an instruction manual. Discourse should advance our thinking on a given area while not leaving any one participant permanently damaged. Embarrassed, disproven, and reeling to re-examine, possibly. But damaged and removed from future bouts, absolutely not. It should be martial arts not a street fight, a fencing match not a duel to the death.
I have created a set of “rules of engagement.” These are much more than a push for civility. These guidelines will ensure that you and everyone involved will derive maximal benefit from your discussion.
Strong Beliefs, Loosely Held
This first rule is less specific to discourse and more of a way of life. Cultivating humility in the way that you hold and defend your values lays the foundation for growth and healthy conservation.
Your thoughts, ideas, and arguments define your worldview. This is the spring from which all of your behavior flows.
If your values and the ways in which your engage with the world are never challenged, they will never progress. You cannot hope to be a better person, with a more honed set of intellectual tools, without ever meeting opposition. Challenge - genuine, reasoned, honest, compassionate yet fierce challenge - is the only means by which our belief systems progress.
Hold strong values and allow them to define your path. Yet, always seek to hone them. Leave them exposed and vulnerable. They are your everyday clothes, a tough pair of work pants that can stand up to any task. The more that they are challenged and used, the more uniquely yours they become. In contrast, there are those who consider their beliefs a part of their identity. Any challenge to their ideas is an affront to who they are - an insult and an attack to be avoided and defended at all costs. Their beliefs are a walled garden, their fanciest formal suit, kept pristine and brought out on occasion to impress, yet never meant to see everyday use. Never to see evolution.
“Strong beliefs, loosely held” is a reminder to allow your ideas and value structure to take center stage in your life to define who you are and how you act, while never allowing yourself to harden to the point that you cannot receive external feedback.
Your beliefs are not a part of you. They are simply tools to help you navigate life. Always looks to acquire new tools, discard those you no longer need, and sharpen those that you decide to keep.
Come for the Challenge, Not the Victory
Come focused on what you would like to know, rather than what you already know. This comes from a fundamental shift in how you view a conversation and what you seek to accomplish therein. Do not come into a debate to correct, fix, or “out” your opponent. Assume that the other person has something to offer and that they are an ally to move both of your understandings forward.
Granting a person and their views merit might be an extremely difficult leap to make, especially considering a person’s demeanor, belief systems, or your personal history together. However, if you cannot acknowledge the value that conversing with this person might bring you, you admit to not engaging for honest reasons. You have come to impress others, to fuel your ego, to further entrench your own beliefs, or to humiliate the other person as you use them as a punching bag. You have come for victory not the challenge, to win rather than to grow.
This is a complete ego-trip and unfortunately describes most political and social conversations that we both witness publicly and participate in privately.
Nearly every other honest person can teach you something or at least examine your views from an entirely new vantage. New perspectives show us weak places in our arguments and force us to re-examine more carefully. Healthy engagement lets us reconcile seemingly disparate ideas into a more comprehensive understanding. It helps us develop more robust methods of explaining and defending what we have come to believe.
If you cannot grant a person merit (and they, you), do not even bother entering a discourse. It will either devolve to insults or simply turn into you both swapping turns to repeat what you already believe. Talking at one another, each more concerned with what to say next than anything the other person might be trying to express.
Assume that everyone has something to offer. It’s the only way to begin a decent conversation.
Grant a Generosity of Spirit
Take the last rule one step further. Healthy, honest conversation depends on more than you simply assuming value in another person’s views. Assume also that the other person is both well-intentioned and rational.
Viewpoints contrary to your own are not necessarily “wrong” in a moral sense. Characterizing someone as anywhere from ill-willed to downright evil is all too easy. This is a crutch to dismiss them and never fully engage with their ideas. A similarly cheap tactic is to assume that someone is irrational and did not come to their ideas through logic, reason, and thoughtful consideration.
There are plenty of ill-intentioned people and irrational arguments out there, but never leap to assume either. Assume that everyone is thoughtful, rational, and aiming to improve the world with their beliefs. Is this always true? Of course not, but it’s the only way to set the stage for an honest conversation.
You believe the best of yourself. You are certainly not trying to harm anyone with your ideas. You fully believe in their merit and ability to help the world. Most other people, even those with wildly conflicting ideals, have the same emotions about their viewpoints. Be generous and grant them the understanding that they come to their values both rationally and compassionately.
Truly examine opposing ideals. Consider how someone might have come to them and why they find value in them. Even if your view does not make a large shift, you will have honed your personal tools and learned that logic can easily prove two vastly opposing points when the initial conditions only slightly differ.
Always Remember Your Own Capacity to be Irrational and Dogmatic
On the whole, the greatest barrier that we impose to healthy and honest debate is to think far too highly of ourselves and not nearly well enough of others.
We so easily write others off. We poke holes in their arguments, dismiss them as unreasonable or misguided, or simply never truly take in what they express. These are all willful choices.
We can remain so committed to our own beliefs that we construct filters through which no contradicting ideas can pass. Even for those that do pass through, we find any justification to dismiss them if they are not what we want to hear.
We denigrate others beliefs will remaining entirely convinced of our own righteous intentions and rational thought processes. Just because you are the witness and conductor of your own line of thinking, does not necessarily make it superior. It is simply your own.
As humans, we are far more similar than we are different. You have the exact same capacity to draw unreasonable conclusions and vehemently defend them that you willingly ascribe to others. Wisdom is not the absence of this quality. Wisdom is a thorough and humble recognition of your ability to error and a commitment to always remain open to re-examine.
This does not mean to discount, denigrate, or doubt your own beliefs. If you did your research and tried your best to arrive at logical conclusions, be confident that you have a fairly complete picture. Be confident that you have a lot to contribute. Higher truths are often uncovered in collaboration and your confidence and conviction are what allow you to be a vital player in this game. Just do not allow your confidence to swell so much that it blocks all entrances for differing thought.
How to Have an Honest Conversation
Truth never lies at the extremes. The world exists in the nuances, between the avenues of mainstream thinking. No matter how carefully you have examined your viewpoints, how many challenges and thought experiments you have passed them through, another person’s perspective will always find areas of nuance that you have not yet considered, dark corners of your belief structure that where previously invisible to you. Think less of yourself and better of your opponent.
When we hold onto something too tightly, we can squeeze the life out of it until it begins to feel hard in our hand. Loosen your grasp on your own views just enough to realize how malleable they can be.
So, how to have an honest conversation? In deciding to engage with someone, know that they have value to bring. Know that they can help you further your own understanding of the world, if only slightly. And know that, just like you, they aim to do good, even if their methods seem different from your own.