Discussions and Arguments

by Krishna on March 2, 2009

One of my acquaintances is fond of saying, “You can wake up a sleeping person, but it is impossible to wake a person who is pretending to sleep.” I am reminded about this when talking to some people. There are people with whom you can have a meaningful conversation. With others, it feels like talking to a television: you can hear them and talk to them, but they keep saying the same things regardless of what you say. While one person wants to have a discussion, the other is scrapping for an argument.

In a discussion, each side has both something to say and something to hear. The outcome of the discussion leaves both sides knowledgeable and better for it. In an argument, the goal is to get the other person to accept the truth of what you are saying. This is fine as both parties agree (explicitly or implicitly) on whether they are having a discussion or an argument. The problem is when both parties have different aims and neither is aware of it.

Arguments are not necessarily bad. There are some subjects (politics, religion, sports, etc.) where there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences of opinion. Arguments can expose lack of knowledge, thus driving adherents to be more educated about what they are talking about, and develop better messaging. Arguments in civil formats, such as TV debates, is good for democracy. But in many settings (business and personal relationships), arguments are lose-lose and destructive. They do not provide the way to solve problems. Instead, their purpose is to humiliate or discredit someone. If the relationship continues after the argument, both sides operate in a climate of negative feelings (mistrust, hatred, apathy). No one wins in such a situation.

The biggest mistake made by arguers is their assumption that they can get people to agree with them. This never happens the way they think. Sometimes, the other person simply wants to get the conversation over with to avoid disgrace and embarrassment. Or the other person knows they are wasting their time and give in. Even if the arguer has a valid point, he is tactically wrong. The arguer’s methodology is a direct attack on the other person for holding onto an opinion or doing some action. Since no one likes to admit their mistakes, they dig in regardless of the merits of the arguer’s positions.

In contrast, a discussion is not personal. It is about ideas, but beyond that, it is about respect and learning. Every person is regarded highly for the value they bring to the exchange, and every person endeavors to learn something that they didn’t know before. The participants of the discussion are there to find solutions, not point fingers. They are there not to discuss the past, but to pave the way for the future.

Perhaps the above definition might seem like a boring panel discussing standards for some industrial product, but it can be applied to simple conversations. If you can give due respect to the other person and listen to what they have to say, the conversation will be productive. On the other hand, if you are out to prove something (at their expense or otherwise), the talk will disintegrate into an argument and both of you will lose.

This seems so simple, but practically it is difficult to follow. We all think we are smarter than others. We know we are right. We don’t think that we are about to change our minds – after all, we have thought all this through. While somebody is talking, we are already thinking of what we should say next. We are quick to respond and eager to judge. No wonder we find it so difficult to communicate.

But now we know.

Now, we are aware of why we get into arguments instead of discussions. The question is: What are we going to do about it? Are we still going to keep ignoring contrary opinions? Continue displaying lack of curiosity? Keep trying to prove our superiority?

Are we still going to pretend to be asleep?

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