10 Commandments of Respectful Discussion

The following guidelines are for those of you who want to engage in fruitful, equal and respectful discussions both online and face to face.

In these kinds of discussions, the conversation partner is not viewed as an adversary, let alone an enemy. Nor is the aim to defeat the opposition at all costs. Moreover, the purpose of discussion is not to put on a show for the audience and take advantage of the situation in order to gain followers.

So what, then, is the purpose of fruitful discussion?

You present your thoughts so that the other person can understand what you mean, and you can comprehend what your conversation partner wants to say. Discussion offers an opportunity for both of you to develop your thinking and even change your opinions.

In an ideal situation, the discussion brings you and the other participant closer as humans. Even if your disagreement remains (which often happens), you can learn from each other and your mutual respect will grow.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if discussions were like this on social media and in various live forums? If only! Unfortunately, many “discussions” end up as something else entirely. They turn into outright arguments in which adversaries try to defeat each other through whatever nasty means necessary.

To reduce the number of undesirable fights and have more equal and respectful discussions, I formulated the following guidelines. They can be applied to many kinds of conversations, but in my mind, they are especially useful in situations where there is a disagreement of sorts.

1) Maintain a humble attitude.

It well may be that you are mistaken and the other person is in the right. Be ready to change your opinion. Ditch dogmatic obstinacy.

2) Keep cognitive biases in check.

Keep in mind that we humans, you included, are prone to many kinds of cognitive bias. We regard ourselves as more clever than we really are (Dunning-Kruger effect). We put so much emphasis on information that supports our views and tend to downplay conflicting data (confirmation bias).

These and many other biases are obstacles to fruitful discussion. Exercise self-criticism and be aware of their effect on you.

3) Be mindful of how emotions can affect you.

If the issues under discussion are important and personal, they easily stir up emotions. You may feel personally attacked when your best ideas are critically scrutinised. Clear thinking easily gets obscured and judgment deteriorates when emotions come to the surface.

4) Be just with the opposing views.

Refrain from making a caricature of others’ talking points (straw man) and attacking this kind of distorted view. Rather, ask your discussion partner whether you have correctly understood her arguments. Respond to them only after that.

5) Stay on topic.

Sometimes, people attempt to bury difficult issues by leading the discussion towards irrelevant questions (red herring). A fair debater will not escape from challenging arguments but will respond to them or, alternatively, will change their own opinion.

6) Be civil.

Do not attack your discussion partner as a person (ad hominem). Do not sneer, taunt or mock anyone. Do not presume anything that your interlocutor has not clearly expressed about herself. Moreover, do not play the martyr.

Do be courteous and friendly.

7) Help your discussion partner save face.

If other person’s arguments prove to be weak, do not try to corner her into an embarrassing or shameful situation. Changing one’s opinion can be mentally demanding; make it as easy as possible for the other person by being a fair and safe discussion partner.

Do not rub salt into the wound.

8) Do away with rhetorical tricks.

Civil discourse is not the kind of debate that one should aim at winning at all costs. A skillful language user can use wit in a number of ways to deliver stabbing remarks to her opposition while putting up a façade of civility. Using verbal mastery, you can make your conversation partner look stupid and her opinions silly. This, however, cannot be considered a genuine counter-argument.

A discussion partner is not your enemy—she is not your adversary. Do not treat her as if she were.

9) Demand that the other person be civil during the discussion.

Unfortunately, fruitful discussion cannot take place when only one party complies with the rules. Even if you strive to do justice to another person’s opinions, stay on topic and be civil, the discussion will not work if the other couldn’t care less about such principles.

You have the right to demand of another what you yourself are striving for. If this does not materialise, it is questionable whether there are enough reasons to continue the discussion.

10) But be understanding.

Do not transform a discussion into an obstacle course where another person will immediately be disqualified upon breaking the rules. If your discussion partner loses her temper or lapses into inappropriate tricks, you can remark on her behaviour. She may well revert to civil discourse. It is only human that people do not always reach an ideal discussion.

As you probably realise, these instructions are demanding; it is not easy to have a fruitful and even-handed discussion. Discussion partners must venture to step into a situation in which their viewpoints can be proven wrong. They must restrain themselves and refrain from unfair modes of discussion; they must treat the other and her views as they would want to be treated.

We cannot force anyone to enter into discussion in a civil manner, but we can set our own bar high and keep our ideas clear. Thus, we can perhaps inspire others to engage in a respectful and equal give-and-take. Oftentimes, the old wisdom holds true: you get back what you put in.


You can download these commandments here: 10 Commandments of Respectful Discussion PDF


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