Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Combat Blogging

While I'm relatively new to blogging, I've spent years on various mailing lists interacting and debating a number of topics with a wide variety of different people. A lot of these experiences were extremely challenging in a positive way, and I've learned a lot, and became a better person for the effort.

Other times, the experience hasn't been as positive.

This blog entry is a bit about a couple of behaviors I've learned over the years that can make debates and resolving differences on an issue a positive experience.

Always, always, always address the issue, not the person.

Otherwise known as the "no ad-hominem" (literally, not arguing to the man), this prevents discussions from getting personal, insulting, and hurtful. It's one thing to strongly challenge a position on a subject, it's quite another to challenge the person or group who holds that position.

Don't get your personal identity confused with a position on an issue

It's all too easy to so strongly identify with an understanding we've had all our lives and get deeply offended when another person either doesn't see the merit, or thinks it's completely wrong.

Don't confuse their opinion on the value of the position with how they value you. It's possible for two people to have completely different perspectives on an issue and still value and respect each other.

Make sure what you think someone else is saying is actually what they mean.

Communication is a multi-phase process, and in each of those phases error can easily creep in. I'm sure there's more, but for starters here's a few:

a) Forming the thought of what you want to say
b) Expressing that thought
c) How the medium transmits the message to the receiver
d) What the receiver hears / reads / experiences
e) How the receiver interprets the information they've gotten through the filter of their own experience.

Each of those phases could result in confusion during the transition from one phase to another. Properly communicating a concept to another person so they'll "get" what you're talking about is a skill that takes a lot of practice to get right.

One of the biggest challenges of communicating pertain to the "you had to've been there" kind of things. One of them is for a man to try and understand what it's like to be pregnant. I was at a practice dinner with two (married) pregnant brides-maids and asked them what it was like, and their answer was it was similar to the Pepto-Bismol commercial, which depicted a person whose stomach bloated out and then shrunk.

Since I've never used Pepto-Bismol, I was still in the dark.

Another example is a hobby of mine - namely motorcycle riding. While I can talk about what it's like to ride all over North America on my Valkyrie motorcycle, unless you've ridden a bike headed down the highway, there's no basis for comparison to any other experience.

Right now, a friend of mine is facing some pretty intensive surgery early next month. He was talking to a couple of women about how he's getting an epidural as part of the treatment. The ladies (who were both moms) both said epidurals were highly recommended and very good. Right now my friend doesn't really know what an epidural's like, but soon he'll have a better understanding what they were talking about.

In debates about theological or other issues - a lot of times supposed differences are actually matters of resolving a common term of reference. As such, the safest thing to assume is that - if someone can mis-understand you, they will, and work to keep that from happening.

One low-risk way to kill the birds of illusionary differences and mis-understanding with one stone is to use the next technique -

Form your opposition to a position as a question

Typically it'll be "how do you resolve..."

By asking questions, you
* demonstrate an interest in what the other person has to say,
* can raise a serious issue they may not've thought of,
* may be able to lead them to the conclusion you've already arrived at,
* have improved their thinking process and get them to ask the same question in the future,
* keep the conversation going in a friendly manner
* won't needlessly risk damaging your relationship.

The minimum objective for any debate should be for both sides to better understand each other.

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