How to Have a Respectful, Fruitful Discussion with Anyone

Sometimes I think we will never have world peace as long as we have the Internet.

I love the Internet. I probably spend too much of my time on it. But any time a controversial news item is released or any sort of election happens, I want to chuck my laptop and phone out the window and never leave my room. This weekend was one of those times.

While it’s a marvel that so many people can establish a platform for sharing their stories and opinions via the Internet, we as a culture seem to have lost the art of arguing. I’m not talking about trolling in all caps, but about formal debate and discussion based on mutual respect. We grumble about how politicians care about nothing but loyalty to a political party, then turn around and call a stranger “bigoted” or “stupid” simply because this person doesn’t share our particular world view. If everyday citizens can’t learn to respect each other online, how can we expect world leaders to make peace with each other in real life?

So because we all could use a reminder, here’s how to have a respectful, fruitful discussion in just nine easy steps.

1. Cool it.

Emotional appeal is an argumentative strategy, but a reasonable argument is not fueled by emotion. So when you get angry about a particular issue, don’t jump on social media to write a lengthy post. Don’t launch into a full-blown defense of your point at the mere mention of the topic. Arguing doesn’t solve anything; discussions lead to solutions. If someone tries to provoke you into an argument, say, “Look, we’re really worked up right now. Can we discuss this when we’ve both calmed down?” This is not to say that you can’t be passionate about a certain issue, but flying into a rage is a surefire way to let the other person know you can’t be taken seriously.

2. Do your research.

In formal arguments, each side has to consider not just its own points, but any possible counter argument. Though the Internet has made petty online bickering commonplace, it has also made doing research to create clear, fact-based arguments easier than ever before. Spend some time researching causes you’re passionate about. Read the pros. Read the cons. Read Republican, Democrat, independent, liberal, conservative, purple, green, and yellow content. Get a well-rounded sense of the talking points surrounding a certain issue. And be wary of where your data comes from; a little extra research into the political and religious affiliations of a study can go a long way.

3. Look to share, not to convert.

The goal of a discussion is to discuss. If it’s about making people agree with you, that’s called poor evangelization. You may still disagree with the other person after your discussion, and that’s OK. Your goal for a discussion should be to offer new insight that the person might not have considered before. This is the kind of conversation that changes minds. “I changed my world view because someone forced their beliefs down my throat,” said no one ever.

4. Respect does not equal agreement.

Let’s be real here; in today’s Internet arguments, “She doesn’t respect my opinion!” more often than not means, “She doesn’t agree with me, therefore, she’s an inferior being.” Kindness and good manners are not contingent on how similar your world views are to those of the other person. The Golden Rule isn’t any different online than in person.

5. Disagreement does not merit disrespect.

Some words to eliminate from arguments: hypocrite, bigot, hater, idiot, lunatic. As we all learned in elementary school, insults hurt and they get you nowhere. It is possible to separate the person from their opinion. Just as you would want the other person to respect your freedom of speech, you should be respecting theirs. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall, the Voltaire biographer, wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

6. Listen. Listen. Listen.

How many times have you caught yourself saying, “Yeah, I’m _______, but I’m not like one of the crazy ones”? When you’re having a discussion, don’t put the other person in a catch-all box based on their world view. And don’t write that person off just because he or she has a different perspective than yours. People are so complex and interesting if you pay close enough attention; why do you think Humans of New York is so popular? Pay this person the courtesy of listening, really listening. It’ll help you with the next step, which is …

7. Ask questions and talk about solutions.

If you were really listening to this person, and not checking your phone or planning a counter argument to shut them down, you should be able to come up with a few questions. “What do you think about ________?” “I see your point, but what about ________?” “Can you please explain further what you mean by ________?” Asking questions doesn’t mean you’re “giving in,” but that you’re really trying to understand what that person is saying. You can also ask the person what solutions they have to the problem, and share some of yours. Proposed solutions move the conversation, and society, forward.

8. Be honest when you don’t have a good response.

Give the other person a chance to ask you questions, and be honest when you can’t give an answer. That doesn’t make you weak or uneducated or unprepared — it makes you a human being still trying to figure it all out. Get off your high horse. You don’t know everything. Only one being has all the answers, and He is not of this world. Say, “That’s a good question. I’ll research it further and get back to you.”

9. No matter how different your opinions are, you and the other person are equals.

Period.

So if you want to join the online discussion of last week’s Supreme Court decision, or any discussion, please keep these rules in mind. Let’s make the Internet a better place, one fruitful, respectful conversation at a time.

À la prochaine!

– Vicky

Question: What are YOUR rules for respectful discussions? Leave them in the comments below!

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Study Abroad: Cure for Political Apathy?

Note: I know it’s been a long time since my last post. Thank you to all my followers and readers for your patience.

My French homework for today was fairly simple: write a paragraph in French using transition words (par exemple = for example, en somme = in conclusion, etc.) However, anyone who knows me personally knows that I can’t write about just anything. Even if it’s just one sentence, I want to say something. I was not going to write a paragraph called “Why Cats Are Better than Dogs” just to use the required vocabulary.

So I wrote about the Steubenville trial.

I don’t need to summarize it here; we’ve all heard about it and watched the news reports, (and if you haven’t, Google is a magical thing.) Though it is an extremely important subject to discuss, that’s not what I’m writing about today.

Today in class, I handed in my paragraph. My stone-faced professor, who has made every student nervous since the beginning of the semester, picked up my paper and read the first few lines. Then, she looked at me. Her ice-colored eyes twinkled with the oddest look I’d ever seen, a cross between so-the-quiet-one-is-a-little-activist-now and I-just-asked-you-to-write-a-paragraph-why-didn’t-you-write-about-cats-and-dogs?

But she just said, “OK,” and shuffled my paper in with the rest of the tamer, friendlier paragraphs.

****

There are two things you don’t talk about, ever: religion and politics.

I had that lesson firmly fixed in my brain since high school. Then, in college, I got into a few heart-wrenching political and religious debates with people that I cared about, and after that, I kept my mouth firmly shut.

In America, your beliefs become a part of you, a way to identify you. Joe Schmo: accountant, Giants fan. Republican. Once you identify with a certain political or religious ideology, people automatically associate you with a slew of values that you may or may not agree with. And if you happen to identify with a different ideology than the other person, there is an awkward, embarrassed pause that is interrupted when someone brings up the weather.

During my first week in France, the staff at the study abroad center encouraged us to voice our opinions. The French love to debate, they said. If you disagree, it doesn’t make you a bad person. You can argue about something over dinner and go back to being best friends in the morning.

And so far, it’s worked out well for me, at least with my host family. Political issues are brought up all the time at dinner, and we watch the news together every night. We’ve touched on all the big no-no’s this semester: abortion, gay marriage, war, you name it. Many times, we’ve disagreed. AND IT’S OK. We still all get along so well, and seeing them is the highlight of my day.

Being in a foreign country has made me take ownership of my American nationality. Yes, America’s screwed up. Yes, we have many complex problems. And we need to talk about them. Shoving politics and religion under the rug for the sake of politeness isn’t going to change anything. We need to talk, discuss, argue, whatever, to find the best solution. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that every single opinion is valid, because every person is valid. I’d like to close with a quote from the best history teacher I ever had: “I have the right to disagree with you, but I will fight for your right to say what you believe.”

À bientôt!

– Vicky