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12 Rules for Discourse
I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends. I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don't even invite me.
— Dave Barry
People have thousands of conversations a year, but few spend time to reflect on what they could do better. Productive conversation is a skill like any other, and mastering it is well worth the effort. Here are 12 rules for drastically increasing the quality of your discourse—some are specifically for arguments, and some are universal.
1. Watch Your Tone
A calm, respectful tone has been the foundation of every productive conversation I have ever had. It amazes me how even a shred of anger or frustration in someone’s voice can completely derail any discussion and snowball into a door slam followed (after some time) by a meek apology.
My mom would ask my sister Anna to stop playing minecraft in a manner that instantly conveyed my mom’s seething hatred for video games and her disappointment that my sister partook in activities so antithetical to my mom’s ideals. My mom’s request would almost make my blood boil just by virtue of being within earshot. She would then come to me in complete confusion asking why Anna would respond by screaming a list of reasons why she wanted to be emancipated from the family. My mom would hail me as a magician when I would ask Anna to do the same things but in a neutral, respectful tone, and Anna would oblige (with some resistance—my miracles only go so far).
In Paul Graham’s essay How to Disagree, Paul lays out the seven levels of disagreement from worst to best:
If both parties in a discussion can maintain a neutral tone, the bottom three levels of the pyramid are virtually eliminated. It’s extremely hard to call someone “a middle management wet dream for easy abuse labor” with a straight face while trying to keep emotion out of your voice.
In written communication, I find excessive use of happy exclamation marks and positive emojis to be an effective tool for making it clear you are trying to keep the conversation positive and in good faith.
2. Find the Truth, Not Who’s Right
Use your intuition to generate arguments to support what you believe, but recognize that it is extremely likely that at least one thing you believe is wrong, so be ready to ditch your intuition and accept your interlocutor’s point.
If you acknowledge the goal of the conversation is to find the truth, then you are instantly on the same side as your former “opponent.” If they are not so receptive to the idea that some things they say may be wrong, acknowledging when they make good points will make them more likely to reciprocate.
3. Always Steelman Your Opponent
When someone strawmans your position, they intentionally misrepresent your position to be weaker than it actually is either by changing your argument or only addressing the weakest point. For example, Jill says “I want stronger gun control,” and Jack strawmans Jill’s position in response by saying, “I can’t believe you don’t support the Constitution.”
Steelmanning is the opposite—you focus your efforts on addressing their strongest point (and perhaps even change their argument to make it stronger).
In conversation, time and mental energy are precious. Often, people will make a series of claims or arguments, and you think you can refute all of them. People gravitate towards refuting the weakest argument first—after all, you should be able to make quick work of such low-hanging fruit, right?
In reality, even the simplest arguments have hidden complexities that you will miss but your interlocutor will pick up on. They will point out the argument you missed, and you will feel obliged to respond to prove that you aren’t stupid, and soon you will be “shaving the argumentative yak.”
Instead, hyperfocus on their strongest argument. It shows them that you are listening and acting in good faith, which keeps the tone of the conversation friendly, increases the probability that they will see their errors, and keeps the conversation focused on finding the truth, not on debating who is right.
4. Double Crux
Double cruxing is a rationalist tool for resolving disagreements as fast as possible. The idea is to look for a statement that both parties disagree on such that if both parties were to change their mind on that statement, then both parties would change their mind about the whole topic.
Let’s say Jack (an avid gun rights supporter) and Jill (a proponent of gun control) are trying to figure out what to do about the ever-increasing number of gun deaths in the US. Jack thinks that the self defense benefits of guns are sufficiently large that everyone should have the right to buy a gun. But, if the benefit was not as large as he believes it to be, then he would think it would be worth it to restrict access to guns. Jill thinks that the self defense benefit is over-hyped, but if the effect were as significant as suggested by Jack, then Jill would reconsider her views.
Here, the benefits of guns in self defence is a double crux—the resolution of the statement will align the beliefs of Jack and Jill. Even finding the double crux without resolving it is a victory, as the double crux means that Jack and Jill agree on the logical structure of the debate.
5. Recognize When You Should Write Instead of Talk
Double cruxing is great, but it is often too idealistic. There is rarely a single point of disagreement. Usually, a combination of many arguments make a person take one side over another. Fleshing out, let alone settling these arguments in a spoken conversation is often almost impossible. Steelman-ing helps guide the conversation in the right direction, but sometimes there are simply too many moving pieces, and the discussion will go in circles.
In such cases, it is important to acknowledge that the point of a conversation is not necessarily to even find the truth, but to expose yourself to new ideas or more strongly consider ideas that you had previously discarded. Once you think you have a good picture of the topic space, you should write down your thoughts for people to pick apart. When a debate moves to written form, it is much easier to keep track of all the threads that are spun out.
Written form does not mean moving from a verbal conversation to text messages. It means writing out all of your thoughts in a coherent document. This allows people to respond to each individual point you make while understanding the broader picture you are trying to convey.
Read to collect the dots, write to connect them pic.twitter.com/YbgnKKFUNn
— David Perell (@david_perell) July 5, 2021
6. Leave No Room For Ambiguity
A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that any opportunity to misinterpret what you say will be taken liberally. Not necessarily in a nefarious sense—it just seems to be a natural thing for our brain to do. In friendly conversations, this manifests as intellectual laziness; I can remember several conversations where my friends or I said “what do you mean” despite knowing exactly what the person meant. In heated debates, you often choose an alternative meaning to what you know a person said, which makes the conversation even more confusing. It’s like your brain has an automatic strawman functionality built in.
I recently had a conversation during which I tested out this theory—I said something, and my friend said “what do you mean?” I asked him to guess what I meant and with what probability he thought I meant it. He guessed exactly what I meant, and he said he was 99% sure. Even a tiny bit of uncertainty will stunt the discussion; to ensure that a conversation flows well, take a few seconds to word your sentences precisely to remove ambiguity.
7. Give Too Many Examples
Our brains run on examples. Whether for solving math problems, constructing logical arguments, or writing essays, examples make ideas “click.”
Think of the last article that you read that was trying to make an abstract/general point. Do you wish it spent more, or less, time on illustrative examples/stories? (Or did it spend the right amount of time?)
— Ben Kuhn (@benskuhn) August 28, 2021
Examples are the #1 way to avoid ambiguity.
8. Listen Between The Lines
This is perhaps going to be the vaguest rule here. (So I’ll try to clarify it with an example!) People in general are very bad at talking. When someone tries to convey a complex thought, there is usually a massive internal model behind it, but they’re trying to explain it in a few sentences of English. Needless to say, they don’t decode their idea perfectly. Somewhat ironically, people are very good listeners, so they pick up any imperfection in the improperly decoded idea instantly and tear it to shreds while patting themselves on the back for being so smart.
Recognize that English is an imperfect medium—especially when one has a few seconds before looking like a fool—and try to understand what the person really meant.
I’m discussing with my friends on whether or not hyper-optimizing your life is a good thing. Ivan is strongly opposed to it but it’s unclear what definition of hyper-optimization he’s using, so we ask him to clarify:
“I think over optimization is when you optimize a single part of your life so much your other parts start to have a negative effect, e.g. you spent 14 hours of your day doing your new startup so you stop eating healthy food or exercising.”
Ethan immediately sees the tautology and calls him out for it—of course under that definition hyper-optimizing is bad. However, I know Ivan is a smart guy and didn’t mean to try to smuggle his argument into the definition on purpose. I posit that he accidentally gave an example instead of the definition and he agrees, so we give him another shot at the definition.
Catching these errors and responding to them in a friendly and understanding way is essential to keep the discussion on course.
9. Watch Your Tone
Seriously, I can’t stress this enough!
10. Don’t Use Bad Words
“Bad” words have multiple definitions, but are usually used as synonyms/stand-ins for other words (usually good/bad or right/wrong). Opt for explicitly saying the definition you’re using instead.
As a teenager on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and an avid consumer of TikTok, my sister argues a lot with my parents about racism, among other things (like taking out the trash). My parents, as avid consumers of the New Yorker, are eager to test their intellect against a worthy foe. Believe it or not, these arguments are not usually (read: never) productive.
The main conflict is that my sister has a very progressive definition of racism, while my parents subscribe to the “unless I hate minorities I’m not racist” camp. So they go back and forth about how X is/isn’t racist, perking the ears of more and more neighbors, and at some point one side becomes too exasperated to argue anymore.
I see two problems here: (1) racism has multiple definitions so it should be made clear which one is being used (2) racism is actually being used as a synonym for “bad” so both parties are unwilling to accept the other’s definition even when made explicit.
The solution is simple: find & replace the word racist/racism with its definition throughout the conversation. In addition to clearing up a lot of ambiguity, this has the added benefit of focusing the conversation on what it’s really about—I have a feeling they weren’t playing “label every event in the past century as racist or not,” but wanted to talk about what policies would be most effective to combat racial injustice.
Similarly, when Fauci was splitting hairs over the definition of gain of function research, it would have been more productive to just replace “gain of function research” with the actual research. It would have avoided the whole debate and allowed for the public to decide for themselves whether the research was acceptable or not.
11. Convey Uncertainty Through Stories
People really like to fake it ‘till they make it in debates on things they know very little about. If you communicate your expertise in the beginning of the conversation, you can much better assess what your priors should be (who you should assume is initially correct).
For example, when debating veganism and one person says, “I spent the last few months extensively reading the research on animal consciousness, environmental effects of animal agriculture, and the effects of various diets on heart disease” and the other says, “I can regurgitate some titles of articles on veganism I saw while scrolling through Facebook,” you know who you should initially trust.
The more honest and explicit you are, the better the results. If you mention every study you read, you are much less likely to give a biased overview of your takeaways. Instead you will give a complete picture, for example, that you saw three meta-analyses that showed increasing dietary cholesterol increased serum cholesterol and one that showed no correlation, but one of the three had some flaws in the methods they used in measuring serum cholesterol.
12. See How Much Your Partner Cares
Arguments about things that need to actually be done (e.g. anything from taking out the trash to what tech stack a company should implement) can get pretty gnarly for seemingly no reason. Often, the feeling that you have to actually do something amplifies emotions, which starts a negative conversational quality feedback loop.
In these situations, it’s important to suss out how much your partner cares about what you’re asking them to do. However, this is a last resort. In the case of you asking someone to do something, make sure you have legitimate reason (and have expressed that reason) and aren’t coming from laziness, otherwise the requestee will immediately feel exploited. For example, if you haven’t done the dishes in a while, your partner feels strongly about you pulling your weight, and you’re indifferent to cleaning, humor them and do the dishes—it will make them feel a lot better at little cost to you.
In the case of deciding what action to take, make sure you do your due diligence exploring all options fairly. If no clear consensus is met, go with whoever feels strongest about their action. Either they are more passionate about their choice so they will see it through, or they have more skin in the game so their choice strongly affects them but not others. The founding brothers of Stripe used this heuristic to make critical decisions about the future of Stripe.
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