Discussion Tips


We had a rule in my family as I was growing up: don’t discuss politics.  Such discussions had a history of flaring up, so it was deemed best to avoid them altogether.  Sound familiar?

But, confronting and resolving conflict constructively is a valuable skill.  It can come in handy in a number of areas of our lives – at work, at home, in volunteer activities or on the phone with a customer service representative.

Discussions help us develop our viewpoints.  It exposes us to different viewpoints and gives us practice at addressing objections or concerns and honing a message to make it more understandable.  Effective messages are often carved from such discussions.  And, it helps us find out when we’re wrong about something.

I’m no master of effective conversation, but I have improved with time and experience.  Over the years, I’ve developed these tactics and ground rules for handling disagreeable discussions. The following are some of things that I think make discussions more effective.

Feel free to comment with your own tips.

Overall Discussion Tips

1. It takes two or more to play. If the other parties aren’t open to the conversation, then it won’t be effective.  It’s like the advice from Alcoholics Anonymous: the best chance of alcoholic recovery is when the alcoholic decides it’s time for a change.

Our mental models (how we think the world works) are fragile and many folks don’t like to test them.  The best time to have a discussion is when people come out of their cocoons and ask questions.  This commonly occurs after a person has observed something that clearly didn’t work as their mental model predicted and they are searching for explanations as to why.

I refer to these mind opening occurrences as true measures.  True measures are hard-to-deny facts.  I’ve seen highly confident business managers, with their vision of a perfect plan, deflate quickly when the business results come back nowhere near their high expectations.  The business results – while sometimes influenced by other factors – are hard to deny.

2. Approach the conversation as if you have something to learn. Do not approach the conversation as if you have the right answer and you’re goal is to prove it.  The learning approach puts you in a state to be open to hear the other party’s views.  You may, learn something or hear something new that you have not considered.

This is also good at getting to the root of their thinking.  It will allow you troubleshoot their logic to identify flaws in their reasoning and use that to present your viewpoint to address those specific gaps.

When you get a leak in the pipes of your house, you want the plumber to identify it and fix it.  You don’t want the plumber to completely replace all plumbing in your house for one little leak.

If the plumbing in a house represents our mental model, I find that many disagreements are really due to a leak here or there, while the rest of the plumbing is in fine shape.  It’s much easier and effective to fix the leaks.  Listening to your discussion partner will help you find the leaks.

Other times, though, there are major plumbing problems that need a lot of work.  I’ve found myself in discussions before where I thought we were discussing why a political party thought one solution would work better than another, to find that we were really discussing a false, yet deeply-believed, view of the political party.

3. Do not expect people to make major shifts in their thinking instantly. No matter how clearly wrong they are or how good of an argument you present, people grasp onto their mental models like a security blanket.

If someone gives you a chance to offer your viewpoint and you can plant the seeds of a good viewpoint, consider that a victory.  If your viewpoint has any validity, at some point down the road they may see something related to it and consider it further.

When I think back to the major shifts in my thinking, that’s exactly how those shifts occurred.  A week, month or years after a discussion – often where I strongly disagreed with my the other party – I’d see or read about something related to that discussion and their viewpoint suddenly seemed like a reasonable explanation.

4. Keep these objectives in mind throughout the discussion:

  • Gain an understanding of the logic and reason your discussion partners used to arrive at their beliefs and conclusions.
  • Provide your discussion partners with the logic and reason you use to arrive at your beliefs.

5.  Clearly identify the issue and keep the discussion on track and moving toward the objectives. Discussions go off track when one or both parties resort to common diversionary tactics such as name calling, false representation or misunderstanding of the opposing argument, false accusations, numerous logical fallacies or changing the subject.  We resort to these naturally and intuitively when we are having a difficult time conveying our positions, when we feel challenged or tired of the discussion.  These are ways of getting out and feeling like we scored points and protected our ego.

Specific How-To:

Having an effective and constructive discussion takes practice.  Here are some more specific tips on handling discussions.

Pulling the pin on grenades

Some people can’t help but drop grenades.  That’s when they make snippy comment to get a rise and they have no intention of letting you respond.  Don’t let them off that easy.  With a dispassionate tone, ask:

Do you mind if I ask you to explain why you think that?

If they say that they’d rather not, then respond:

Then I’d appreciate it if you not bring up the subject unless you are willing to discuss it.  I’d love to learn more about your thinking and share with you mine.  I’m open to the discussion. If you’re not, then don’t bring it up. I try to give you the same respect.

Conversation Starters

Often time, discussions start spontaneously.  They may stem from a number of things.  Someone may drop a grenade and a discussion ensues.  Or maybe a news story comes on the TV and that spurs discussion.  Whatever it is, be prepared to take a couple steps back before the discussion gets out of control.

Stop the momentum.  Ask, “Are you really interested in discussing this right now?”  If not, then stop discussing it.  If so, then proceed with caution. I’d recommend laying some ground rules.

1.  Ask if we can identify and agree about the issue we’re discussing.  Maybe phrase it in a form of a question, “Why do Democrats think….”  or “Is health care a basic right?”  or something like that.  You may want to write it down so you can refer to it if the discussion gets off course.  As you get into the discussion, you may find out that the issue really isn’t what you started with.  It may be something for basic or underlying.  It’s okay to change the issue, but keep track of that and write it down as it evolves.

2. Establish the ground rules. “I’d like to hear what you think.  Would you mind explaining to me your position?  After that, I’d like to respond and let you know what I think.”  Get a paper and pen and take notes.  This will help calm your desire to interrupt and respond.  Write down the things that you disagree with so you can address them at some point later.

3.  Check your egos at the door.  Say this out loud and see if you can get some agreement from your partner.  “Look, I don’t know everything about this topic.  I have some opinions and I could be wrong.  I’m open to learning more, I hope you are too.  We’re not handing out awards here or running for office.  At the end, I think it will be a good conversation if we both can get the reasoning behind our opinions out there.”

Doing this will help set the stage for an effective conversation.

In Deep

Once you’re into the conversation, wait and listen patiently.  Write down their key positions and any specific things that you disagree with.  The only time you may want to interrupt is if they go off topic or if you need a clarification.  You can say, “I’m not sure how that relates to the topic.  I’ll take note of this, this is another issue I’d be happy to discuss with you at another time.  Do you mind if we get back to the topic.”

However, if you feel the new issue is more of an underlying issue to the starting issue, you may want to say, “It sounds like you’re getting off topic, but this may be good.  I think we’re getting to the reason why you think that about the beginning topic.  Let’s take a second and revise the topic.  The issue isn’t, ‘why do Republicans think this will work’.  Let’s change it to, ‘why are Republicans such jerks?”

Your Response

Now that you’ve heard your discussion partner’s reasoning and have taken notes, you are probably over eager to pounce.  I recommend taking a measured approach in your response.  Follow these steps:

1.  Take a break.  Go to the bathroom, refill your drinks. Just getting up and giving it some time will take the edge off and allow you to be more effective.

2.  Clear up misunderstandings.  Make note of the things that aren’t clear in your partner’s case.  When it’s your time, see if you can clarify those areas.  For example, “I want to make sure I heard you right about…, did you say that you believe….?”

3.  Fact check.  A high percentage of discussions can stop here.  People very often have their facts wrong.  While you’re taking notes, make note of facts that do not appear to be correct or that you’re not sure about.   Ask your partner to substantiate these facts.  If their position rests on these facts, showing these to be incorrect should be enough for them to reconsider their position.  Though, not always.

4.  Identify tactics that have no bearing on whether you are right are wrong on this specific topic.  These too often masquerade as legitimate argument, but simply aren’t.  Here are some of the more common tactics:

Ad hominem – This is almost a fancy word for name calling.  This might sound something like, “I don’t believe anything he says, he’s just for the wealthy.”  The best response to something like this is, maybe, but that has no bearing on whether he’s right or wrong about this subject. Similarly, because you are for the ‘little guy’ doesn’t automatically make you right.

Straw man – This is a false and easy-to-beat version of the opposing argument.  A straw man is easily knocked down (hence the name).

Appeal to expert/authority – Too often people let experts to do their work for them. While experts may know more than you, being an expert doesn’t always make them right. And many experts disagree on many subjects.

Appeal to research – Similar to an appeal to expert, this is an attempt to use research studies to prove a point.  You can find research that says just about anything you want to say.  Research studies are often flawed and those flaws are sometimes not identified until years later.  Just the fact that there are so many studies with opposing conclusions should be enough evidence for a reasonable person to not accept a research study as gospel.  It’s always good to have an example.  One study long ago showed coffee to be bad for your health.  The researchers, however, neglected to control for smoking in the study and what they really found was that coffee drinkers also tended to smoke and the smoking was what caused that population to look unhealthy.  The non-smoking coffee drinkers weren’t doing bad.

Changing the subject (red herring) – When they feel like they’ve lost a point, people often try to change the subject

4. If you think that they just have a couple of leaking pipes, address those leaks.  No need to rip out all the plumbing.  “I think I agree with you on this, this and this.  We only seem to differ on this point.  Let’s focus on that.”

5. If your partner has presented points that have made you want to rethink your position, swallow your pride and say so.  The world will not stop turning and this will earn you a lot of credibility with your partner and make them much more willing to have discussions with you in the future.   This will also give you a chance to give some good thought to these points, rather than try to respond to a new point with half-baked arguments.   “You know, you said this and this.  These are things I haven’t heard before.  I think they are good points.  I’m not sure I agree with them yet, but you’ve definitely given me something to think about it.  Give me a chance to think those over and see if I can figure out a reasonable response.”

6. Before presenting your position, you may want to take another break to collect your thoughts.

7. Presenting your position

People respond to, identify with and remember stories.  The more you can relay your points in the form of stories, the better.

Focus on the underlying issue and the leaky pipes.


6 thoughts on “Discussion Tips

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