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How to Have a Productive Conversation

I bet I am not the only one who has noticed that the quality of discourse on Facebook is poor, if not pathetic. Yet, Facebook can be a place for productive conversation as well and, as much I get Facebook fatigue and occasionally drop out, I would like to think that it has a role to play in public discourse, even when that discourse is highly fraught. That is an optimistic assessment of Facebook, but there is no question that behavior that we practice on Facebook becomes normative and is often practiced in other more important venues, as well. People get good at what they practice. If they practice boorish, uncivilized conduct during discourse on Facebook, it is likely that their discourse outside of Facebook with friends, co-workers and family members will be equally boorish. By way of disclaimer and full disclosure, I am not the cosmic example of how to conduct public discourse, but that won’t stop me from sharing a few insights that I have found to be helpful in the course of my work that might be helpful for others in any kind of public discourse.

First, on Facebook, as in any other platform for discussion about controversial issues, it is important to leave room in one’s opinions for facts that you might not yet have considered. You don’t have all the pertinent facts and neither do I (but mostly you). So, it is helpful and productive to enter a discussion with openness to learning new things.

Second, train yourself to believe that other parties to the conversation are also people of good will and people who are also guided by their own moral compasses. Maybe they are not, but train yourself to believe that they sincerely believe what they are saying. There are some jerky people out there, but the fact that they disagree with you and me doesn’t make them jerks (sometimes it does, but not usually). Start by assuming the best of intentions in your partner in a debate. You can always recalibrate later if you have to.

Understand that the foundation for relationship with anyone is not agreement on a particular issue, but respect for differences. No one agrees with everyone on everything. The fact that people disagree is not, in itself, a problem. Disrespect, though, is a majore problem and it is practiced throughout our society, starting at the very top. As the Greek saying goes, “The fish rots from the head first.”

What does respect for people who disagree with you and me look like? What does it require of us? For one thing, it might require us to pause before hitting the enter key, the post button or the send button. Maybe an impulsive reply is not the best tactic. Give yourself some time and you might find a better way to frame your remark, one which will help people listen and hear rather than antagonize. After all, we want to be listened to, don’t we? What if my reply is taken as an insult or insinuates that the other person is stupid or ignorant? Does anyone want to listen to someone who is demeaning? Projecting respect for someone who holds a different opinion requires curiosity about the other person’s opinion. Instead of impulsively refuting or rebutting the remark, which is by far the default mode in most public discourse, instead of an immediate negation, instead of arming yourself with all the info you can think of to prove that the other person is not just wrong, but ridiculously wrong, instead of immediately responding by pointing out the other person’s hypocrisy, you might try replying with a question: what do you mean by that? Did I understand you correctly? How did you come to that position? Has that been your experience? If you are lucky, you can always get to their hypocrisy later. But pointing out someone else’s hypocrisy is never the best, first reply. And it takes no insight or intelligence to do so. Rather, by replying with a sincere question of some kind, we can learn things, which would be the point, wouldn’t it? Also, the other person is more likely to feel like he or she has been listened to.

You might also find that the person you are dialoguing with is so convinced of his or her position that attempting to persuade them to modify it is a waste of time. If so, disengage and spend your time in a more productive way. One of the mistakes that people make is investing too much time in people who don’t want to be persuaded of anything and are happy in their own errors. When we hold a position very strongly, when the stakes in the conversation are very high, when emotional circumstances are highly charged or when we have persuaded ourselves that our personal opinions are the only legitimate ones out there, it is easy to waste valuable time and energy in a fruitless effort. Who needs that? It is entirely useless.

I take it that the purpose of conversation is to learn and the purpose of Facebook is to have fun. There are too many times when it is obvious that not enough people are learning and if we are having fun it is at another person’s expense. I have heard complaints or remarks to the effect that people on the other side of an issue are living in an alternate reality or an alternate universe. When we use this description, we have already called the people who disagree with us “aliens” and sadly, in our suffocating political atmosphere, “different” too often means “other.” Something is wrong with such assessments. There is only one universe and one reality. We all live in it. More descriptive is that we live in our own private little echo chambers in which we only hear our own voices or the voices of others who sound like us. There is too little dialogue and too much monologue in multiple voices.

Facebook conversations are not the only ones marred by incivility. Counter productive tactics of engagement are practiced in almost all venues of public conversation from TV talking heads to dinner table discourse, from town halls to the White House. TV personalities are poor models. Many elected officials are also pathetic role models. Before engaging in civic conversation, ask yourself what your objectives are. Then ask yourself if you are accomplishing your objectives using the combative tactics you saw displayed on TV. If not, try something different. Try displaying respect, especially for those with whom you differ. Keep in mind that you might not win over your partner in dialogue even with the best tactics. Some conversations go nowhere, get nowhere and leave a lot of bad feelings and hardened positions in their wake. You might not get anywhere using more enlightened tactics, but you will certainly go nowhere faster by practicing combat instead of dialogue.

By Peter J Miano

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