An argument is not a fist fight. If you are thinking in terms of winners and losers, you already lost. Beating people into submission to our point of view is not effective for very long. Shouting, sarcasm, ridicule, mockery—these things can shut down a rational discussion quickly. Our goal is to open the discussion up to a variety of points of view and remain calm about them. Our interest is not winning but instead working together to solve a problem or arrive at an understanding.
We need to assume that people preparing to discuss an issue are relatively rational at the outset and hope they are assuming the same thing about us. We also need to take a look at our own mental state and try to predispose ourselves to rational thinking. Are there any unhelpful emotional reactions we’re having that will interfere with clear thinking? Emotional reactions are fine—after all, we’re human and have emotions—but resist falling into the grip of a strong emotion. We want to keep things rational and pragmatic.
Obviously we are deeply connected to our emotions, but our emotions are not us, they’re only a part of us; and we need to keep them in perspective. A lot of people mistakenly believe they are thinking when in fact they are having an emotional reaction. Polarization occurs when someone thinks their interests are in jeopardy, and that is a situation likely to cause an emotional reaction in most of us. The best time to shut down a polarizing situation is to start while everyone is still reasonable.
Just because someone disagrees with you does not make them stupid. It is possible for intelligent people to look at the same set of facts and come to differing conclusions. One of the most effective ways to defuse polarization is to determine what everyone agrees on. When things start to get a little heated, make a list of the areas of agreement. Identify the areas where there is no dispute. This can help people feel less threatened.
Do we have the facts? Have we clearly identified them and separated them from other sorts of statements, like statements of belief or opinion? Are there any cognitive biases that are twisting or distorting the information? The great thing about a statement of fact is that it is independently verifiable. What that means is that you can find out facts for yourself without resorting to hasty assumptions or relying on someone else for information. If I say it’s raining right now, you don’t need an interpreter or an expert to determine if I’m being factual, you can look for yourself. If you’re having trouble agreeing on a statement or claim, then there’s a fair chance the statement is not a statement of fact.
The next step in keeping things rational is to determine which particular statements are causing problems. What makes those statements problematic? Is there appropriate support or evidence for the claims? What is it that feels suspicious and why does it seem questionable? Put things into categories to make it easier to see what you are dealing with.
Another helpful tactic is to specifically identify the issue and then list the kinds of support offered. Underscore the statement that seems to both sum the up issue and present a point of view about it. Locate and examine the support for the claim. Support can be such things as facts, expert testimonials, statistics, examples, concrete details. Is the support sufficient and convincing, or is more support needed?
Identifying the facts. Assessing the support. Rooting out cognitive bias. Establishing the facts. These steps are essential in any rational discussion, but the one thing we have a tendency to overlook is ourselves and our own limitations. Once we fully understand that there are limits to our own thinking abilities, we’re more likely to be tolerant of the limitations of others.