Conversation Tips: Discuss, Don’t Debate

Thanks to the Internet and social media, it’s easier than ever to share one’s opinions and thoughts in an open forum. Even the quietest and most introverted among us now have a public space to be bold and opinionated without actually speaking to anyone face-to-face. It’s empowering, but it’s also made civil conversation feel like a thing of the past. A simple link or a benign comment can easily devolve into outrage, vicious personal attacks, and lingering vitriol.

And that isn’t only true of online conversations. Perhaps because of today’s polarized political climate, or perhaps because we’re hardwired for conflict, respectful, genial conversations seem like an elusive dream. And yet dialogue is key to understanding each other, working together, and engaging with each other in deeper, more significant ways.

This isn’t to say that debate is always a negative. Civil, controlled debate where there’s a healthy exchange of conflicting ideas can be fun and intellectually stimulating. But when responses get personal, anxiety levels rise, and the exchange becomes draining, it’s no longer enjoyable for either party.

Take life coach Celestine Chua’s example. Chua was having a conversation with someone she met at an event, someone with a very prestigious job. But while the man had a high IQ, his EQ (emotional quotient) was not as impressive. He repeatedly asked Chua interrogative questions and kept probing her about personal topics. Meanwhile, he deflected all her (more appropriate) questions about him. The conversation soon turned into an argument. In the end, Chua left feeling sour about the exchange and didn’t stay in touch with the man, even though they were supposed to be networking. The potential connection was severed as soon as their conversation turned heated and defensive.

So how can you keep your conversations civil, and stop them from devolving into arguments?

1) Avoid hot-button issues in small talk.

Given how explosive the entire world’s political climate is at the moment, politics and politically charged issues can be hard to avoid. But bringing them up in small talk is an easy way for your conversation to quickly turn combative. (See also: religion, money, offensive jokes.) After all, even if you think you’ve read a person well, you never know where they stand on certain issues, and you might inadvertently insult them.

While it’s important to expose yourself to people with differing opinions, networking and small talk is not the place for that. Instead, stick with neutral topics. Listening to TED Talks, reading up on pop psychology, and staying abreast of current culture are all good ways to conceive of topics. Ask someone where they want to travel, or ask about their hometown. And if they ask who you’re voting for in the next election, gently guide the conversation back to neutral territory.

2) Don’t interrupt (and avoid being interrupted).

This one might seem obvious. Yet we all do it, both inadvertently and because we think what we have to say is so pressing it needs to be said now. Even if it’s well intentioned, interrupting a conversation is jarring, frustrating, and makes the other person feel steamrolled. So even if you’re interrupting politely, just wait until the other person is finished to talk. We promise: you won’t forget the thing you’re aching to say.

Learning how not to be deterred by an interrupter is important, too. You might say, “One moment, let me finish my thought,” or simply continue talking. If you do continue talking, do so firmly but kindly, lest it lead to combat. Another approach is to let the person finish talking, then circle back to your previous thought. Chronic interrupters are often super-smart people whose brains move at a faster clip. Since their minds are veering quickly between topics, they’ll likely appreciate you keeping the conversation on track.

It’s also important to recognize whether or not you’re hogging the conversation. Do you often get interrupted? You might not realize that you’re the problem.

3) Bring empathy to your conversations.

It’s easy to get heated and defensive when someone turns your conversation nasty and contentious. Instead, practice empathy. Ask yourself: why is this person trying to debate with me? It could be that they’re simply an antagonistic person. Or there might be any number of alternative explanations. Perhaps they feel self-conscious and outclassed by you, and are eager to show they’re equally capable of intelligent and piercing thought. Or perhaps they’re merely venting. Perhaps they’ve had a difficult day, or a difficult month, or a difficult few years.

Empathy doesn’t mean conceding when you don’t believe you should. Nor does it mean being passive or letting yourself get walked over. It means understanding why someone is being combative, instead of becoming emotional or aggrieved about it. Listen to them vent, let them know you understand their frustrations, and communicate respect, even when you disagree with them.

4) Know when to bow out.

Sometimes, as in Chua’s case, it’s unavoidable to end up in a conversation with someone who’s thirsty for debate. At that point, the best thing to do is end the conversation quickly and without conflict. Make up an excuse (“I’m so sorry, I spot a friend I haven’t seen in a while!”), or find another exit plan, but make it clear and firm that this is the end of the conversation. The last thing you want is to end up in another excruciating argument with the same person all over again.

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