It seems like having actual discussions and debate is becoming a lost art lately. I mean real, open discussions where things remain on topic and people offer differing thoughts, facts and opinions in response to those same things offered from another person. Discussions where people are welcome to change or refine their views…but aren’t required to. Where it is okay to disagree.
Because that is what real discussion is. It is where one person offers information…facts, opinions, thoughts…and another person offers some back. And what is offered back is related to what was shared. What it isn’t discussion is a simple disagreement without reasons. It also isn’t a personal attack on the person. Real discussion is about sharing ideas. It is about considering new information and new perspectives. It is about respect.
The ability to have real discussions is important. Discussions is how real issues are resolved. Having a safe, productive environment for dealing with complicated issues is essential to the health of relationships. If difficult issues aren’t dealt with they can fester and create resentment and anger. And if they are dealt with, but badly, it can cause serious hurt and damage.
Discussions are also important for another reason…they create connection. Discussions are how we learn about each other. They give us insight into how other people think. They reveal what values are important. Discussions don’t always have to be about resolving something or making a point. They can simply be for the sake of the discussion…to have a glimpse into the personality of someone we are engaged with. Too often I see people that have important relationships but don’t really have much idea of the core values or even opinions of the other person. When that happens conflict can arise. Even though it may be inadvertent, there can be disregard for things that are very important to the other person. Meaningful issues are ignored or even demeaned, with no intention but terrible impact.
There are actually formal rules for discussions and arguments. It is an area of philosophy called logic. Part of this is definitions of different kinds of fallacies. Fallacies are ways of arguing that can often be used but actually aren’t valid. They appear to make sense but really don’t. If you are interested you can learn more here. But I really want to discuss one particular fallacy. One that can be very damaging in relationships. It has a Latin name – ad hominem.
Ad hominem means “to the man” or “to the person” because it is an attempt to discredit a person’s argument by making a personal attack against the person. For example, Person A says “I think this book is better than this book because the plot was more realistic.” Person B responds with “I think you are wrong because you are stupid.” Person B’s response really has nothing to do with the argument at hand…it is simply an attack against the person.
Of course this is a pretty simplistic and obvious example. These kind of criticisms can often be much more subtle and not overtly malicious. It can be a simple questioning of credibility or reliability. It can be “why should I believe you?” or “why do you know this when other smart people don’t?” That doesn’t mean that those can’t be valid questions. But if they are the continual response to someone trying to engage in discussion, they become way of saying I want to disagree but don’t have the ability or desire to contribute meaningfully. And when that continually comes from a person you care about, it can hurt…a lot.
There are lots of reasons to avoid discussions and debate. Often it is fear. Having open, honest discussions where you reveal your thoughts and opinions and knowledge makes you vulnerable. Vulnerable to criticism and ridicule. Vulnerable to possibly needing to acknowledge that you are wrong. But of course vulnerability is two-sided. Being vulnerable creates opportunity for connection. It creates the opportunity to learn that someone we are in a relationship with can treat us respectfully and honor our thoughts and opinions…even when they disagree. It allows us to learn what matters to each other and learn the other’s perspective. It allows us to be gentle with one another and build trust and safety. It is what real connection in relationship is about.
The next time the opportunity for discussion arises, don’t shy away. Embrace it as an opportunity…an opportunity to learn, to connect, to build. And challenge yourself. Challenge yourself to have real discussion, to reveal your true thoughts and opinions. And perhaps more importantly, challenge yourself to discuss respectfully. Listen and learn about not only the topic, but about the other person. Challenge yourself to argue strongly about the topic but treat the person gently.