Conversation Tactics


By David Stein


1. Compose and refine your personal value system. Know what you stand for.

2. Create your spaces, define your limits.

3. Practice a balanced conversation style. Give and take equally.

4. Conversation is an art: composition and language are important. Respect language.

5. Ideas are conceptual, not material. Do not attach your ego to them. Allow them to be destroyed.

Basic Tactics:

1. No pejoratives

2. No second person, very little first person

3. No rhetorical questions

4. Let them be wrong.

Unilateral discussion tactics:

1. Always listen (remember your third fundamental).

2. Challenge them to define their values and define their terms.

3. “Agree to disagree,” but know what you mean by it.

4. Give them a chance, but know when (and how) to disengage.


The battle for anything that matters to us will be a battle of ideas: similar ideas, different ideas, compatible and incompatible ideas. Communication and conceptual literacy are essential to how we fight these battles and will determine the outcomes. We need to practice and we need to be prepared.

The arenas for these battles have traditionally been print journals, malls and cafes. These institutions still exist, but as journals become more prolific online and social media assumes the identity previously held by the malls and cafes our conceptual writing and comprehension skills become more essential to how we exist and commiserate as a society.

No matter how technology changes our means and processes of correspondence it does not minimize its importance or change how we communicate on a philosophical level. But we have to recognize that we are nascent in our exploration of social media as a public forum. Everyone is welcome but nothing is vetted. We can find any niche we want but end up stuck in the eddies of echo chambers. We have instant information at our fingertips but we’re left to fend for ourselves in the onslaught of bias, propaganda and hyper-commercialization.

I love being overwhelmed. I love the option anxiety. I love the unlimited possibilities, the challenge of infinite noise of commercial static set before us, the lack of safety nets (or the threat of a million false safety nets). I love the challenge and how daunting it is because I want concepts and ideas to be as challenging as possible. That’s how they get better. That’s how we get better.

Maybe we don’t all feel that way, and that’s fine. I want everyone to participate, and each to their own purpose and level. That is part of the reason why I wrote this, because we discuss on such different levels.

One the biggest factor in our growing pains is our addiction to debate. It’s misunderstood and it’s counterproductive. I won’t say that it’s useless or harmful (although it certainly can be) but we need to be mindful and purposeful in how we interact with each other and share ideas and concepts. I feel that argumentation is largely ineffective in terms of sharing ideas and expanding conceptual literacy.

An argument involves two parties with opposing points of view. They pit their views against each other and ostensibly one of them sees the error of their ways and converts entirely to the other point of view, thus ending in success for the victory. I could go on about the problems of this model at some length, but I can just as easily summarize the issue in two words: human nature. This model doesn’t work the way it’s intended.

A debate is when two people enter into an argument with a third party determining a winner and a loser. Anyone who has ever participated in competitive debate understands that there are judges who hear your arguments and judge your performance based on a set of criteria. Even if the judges were completely unbiased the criteria was entirely arbitrary. Online debates are even worse. Participants imagine that somewhere in internet-land is a legion of completely unbiased and anxious observers watching their exchange and taking notes, waiting on the two warring parties to conclude before making up their minds. The more common reality is there are no judges. A few people monitor the exchange with mild interest or passersby pile on to one side of the argument or the other until the din subsides with nothing resolved.

You will periodically see posts on Facebook about how worthless it is to engage in debates on Facebook. “No one ever changed their mind based on one post,” is usually the conclusion of this observation. It’s not entirely incorrect either. Social media debates are often disheartening and draining. Event the most heated social media arguments offer more value as discussions than they do as arguments.

Discussions have a different purpose. A discussion also involves two or more parties with different views (either opposing views or simply dissimilar or divergent views, but that’s semantic) that argue or explain in defense of their stance. However a discussion is a cooperative effort. A successful discussion is one in which each party comes away with a better understand of the other point of view. They don’t have to be convinced. They don’t have to be persuaded at all. But if you are entering into a discussion the best outcome is that the other person comes out of it with a full understanding of where you’re coming from, where you stand.

I believe that discussion also offer the best means of persuasion. I’ve never come out of a debate thoroughly defeated to the point where my opinions immediately flipped. The conversations that have changed my mind the most, that have had the greatest impact on my world view and philosophy, came after a few days of deep reflection and rumination. And it was never (or almost never) a complete reversal. The best ideas are ones that get incorporated into my existing ideas and concepts. We cannibalize and assimilate ideas.

That’s one of the great thing about concepts. We adapt and change them. They’re not physical objects that we need to choose between: “Mine’s good, but this one’s better, so I have to toss the old one aside.” That’s not how concepts work, that’s not how our world view works. We constantly adapt. And conversation is a large part of that.

That’s why discourse and correspondence are so important, and that’s why I’ve spend so much time considering the tactics of conversation. I’d like to share them with you in hopes that we create greater ideas and advance our conceptual literacy.


(1) Compose and refine your personal value system. Know what you stand for.

First and foremost it’s important to compose a solid personal value system and develop the language you need to communicate it.

The most essential part to successful discourse is to understand your own message. If the goal of discourse is for another party to come away with a better understanding of you who you are you have to enter with a full understanding of yourself. Identify and define your core values. Write them down. Flesh them out. Lay out your secondary and tertiary values and understand how they relate to each other, where they sit in the hierarchy of priorities.

One of the most common and most serious pitfalls in discourse is allowing yourself to be defined by what you oppose and what you are against rather than by what you support, what you stand for. It’s important to have a full understanding of your own value system. Understand what it is that you believe in, what it is you hope to accomplish and what steps you’re planning to get there. Memorize it. Know it inside and out.

Practice and be prepared. As a writer it’s important to have as much of this as written down as you can. It needs to be drafted and edited just like anything else you write. But you also need to practice talking about it in the run of natural conversation. Find people you trust that are good listeners, preferably that are drafting their own values as well, and practice discussing your values. It always helps to start with the easiest conversations first.

(2) Create your spaces, define your limits.

When you ask someone to explain the rules of the sport they generally start by teaching you the basic goals of the game. But if you’ve ever picked up an official rulebook you’ve probably noticed that the first few sections are usually dedicated to drawing up the field of play. The art of conversation is the same way. You don’t need a rulebook to chat up your friends about politics but if you’re looking to engage in particularly challenging discussions or want your discourse to be as efficient as possible setting up the field of play is paramount.

Decide in advance the scope of the conversation. If you are discussing a particular topic define the boundaries of it so you can keep the conversation on topic. Be clear in defining your terms. Agree upon standard resources (e.g. I always defer to Wikipedia and Merriam Webster for the sake of discussion). Identify disagreements you encounter as factual, semantic or fundamental in nature. Resolve them (or table them) accordingly.

Don’t let words get in the way of your ideas. 80% of “arguments” I’ve been a part of turned out to be based on a different understanding of a term. Sometimes it involved non-standard terms but many terms have multiple standard meanings. Many arguments immediately devolved into a dispute over some semantic or technical point and never recovered. Having a prearranged standard of language helps avoid these situations.

Staking an area and enforcing it is especially important when you are dealing with someone who is possibly a detractor or disingenuous participant. It is a common digression tactic to engage in ostensibly earnest conversation for the purpose of provoking or exhausting an “opponent” through conversing poor faith. These people will try (actively or passively) to steer the conversation off course. Establishing well defined boundaries and standards and enforcing them will help you avoid these pitfalls.

It’s also important to set some limits on what areas of conversation you’re willing or unwilling to approach at all. There are some ideas that I won’t consider because they have no merit, or, if they do, have no value to me personally. There are some concepts that I will not or cannot share because I don’t have the adequate language for them yet. Some theories are unapproachable because they are so toxic or personal that they can’t be reasonably extricated from practical context. Yet others are abstract to the point that they transcend the traditional boundaries of logic and language. Identify topics or areas that are “out of bounds” and be consistent in enforcing that space.

Creating space refers to understanding the limits and scope of your conversations in advance. You want to have set limits and standards for yourself to be more efficient and keep to the topic, but you want to give yourself enough room for ideas and concepts to grow, adapt and change as you explore them.

(3) Practice a balanced conversation style. Give and take equally.

If you expect people to listen to you, you have to demonstrate that you are willing to listen to them. If you want people to respect the scope and boundaries that you want to set you have to respect theirs as well.

Listening is essential not just because it demonstrates mutual respect. Listening is the essence of why you are in the conversation in the first place. If you are not listening, you are instructing. If that’s the purpose of your engagement you’re better off writing it down and handing it to them. That way you get a better edit.

Concepts and ideas work the opposite of material goods. If you have an idea and I take it from you, we both have the idea. If you put an idea on the table and I destroy it you can still walk away with your original idea. The goal of a conversation, unlike a debate, is to show up with original ideas and collaborate to expand them, develop them and create new ones. Doing that requires open communication and good listening skills. Practice both every chance you get.

(4) Conversation is an art. Composition and language are important. Respect language.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve noticed a propensity for many conversations to devolve into semantic arguments. This is a symptom of having a prescriptive attitude towards language. Human languages are immense in their capacity and capabilities. But they have their limits. That’s why they are constantly changing and adapting.

You only need to follow rules of language and logic within the context of an individual conversation. If someone wants to use base 8 math instead of base 10, go ahead. If you decide that you both prefer a made-up definition of a word to one that you find in the dictionary use it. The most intriguing and most complex concepts are going to push the boundaries and capacity of language. To allow yourself to be restricted by mandates and rubrics will not only inhibit you from pushing these limits it will squeeze you back into the more mundane world of common knowledge.

The same goes for logic. It’s good to understand and recognize logically fallacies but keep in mind that they are designed for debates more so than conversation. If you can understand where a person is going with an argument it’s usually more prudent to jump with them to that next point than to concern yourself with how you get there or whether or not that path is valid.

But the other aspect of this point is to respect composition. If we could just transfer a concept into another mind telepathically we wouldn’t need language. But we can’t, so language it is. The more complicated the idea the harder it is to use the language we have available to fully communicate it. Our skill in composing our words will play a large role in the efficacy with which we communicate.

Conversation is an art form, just like poetry and essay writing. Think of it as a craft, not just a conduit. Pay attention to tone, structure, style, grammar, and all the other elements of composition. Work at it just like you would any other genre of writing.

And if you’re not a writer and worry that this may be an impediment, have no fear. Writing is something anyone can do and anyone can work on. No matter what level of writer you are the goal is to improve, not to win a prize. Although I do think of conversation as a genre, you’re not likely to find yourself conversing with someone who has a MFA in conversation.

And always keep reading. That’s the most important element to writing and conversation is no exception. Books are still the best resource for new ideas. Bringing them into conversation is how we expand and shape the ideas we find in books and articles to make them our own and fit them into our world views.

(5) Concept and ego

Finally it’s important to give some consideration to the nature of ideas and concepts.

Concepts do not have any material relevance but they are very real to us. We exist primarily as concepts, more so than we exist as bodies. If someone asks you “who you are” or what “someone is like” it’s not a biological question. We want to be known by our actions, our beliefs, our interests and our accomplishments. We are governed by our concepts of relationships, of humanity, of society, and of self worth.

But their ethereal nature gives them a certain resilience that physical material does not enjoy. Ideas cannot be removed from existence. They have no mortality. We can challenge them, deconstruct them, reshape them, destroy them, recreate them, clone them, do whatever we want with them without shame or compassion. We can be as brutal as we want so long as we are addressing the ideas themselves separate of the people who put them out there. For this reason it’s important to disassociate yourself from your own ideas, and also to respect the boundaries that other people set for themselves regarding their ideas. This mutual engagement will enable all parties involved to more freely and openly explore new areas of thought without being impersonal.

It’s important for us to disassociate ourselves (as ego) from our ideas and concepts and let them thrive or fail on their own. If we want to adapt and change our worldview we have to be willing to let ideas crumble and fail, or be completely reshaped or distorted beyond any recognition of a previous state. The more attached we are to our ideas going in the harder it is for us to challenge them.

Concepts do shape our reality. They are very important to us. So if you have any ideas that you are not willing to put under the knife it’s important for you to set them aside whenever you enter discourse and bring with you the ideas you most want challenged.

Basic Discussion Tactics

Based on the fundamentals described above I have devised a specific strategy anyone can use to focus their conversation skills. Adhering to these guidelines will improve your writing skills in discourse.

(1) No Pejoratives

It’s important to avoid pejoratives not just because they are mean, but because it’s bad writing. If anything that you write out regarding another person thought or thing can by accurately rephrased as “I don’t like it” then that’s all you need to say. Many people will try to rationalize pejoratives by saying that they are more “honest” or more “accurate” than contrived pleasantries. But pleasantries aside it’s more direct and “honest” and “accurate” to state how you feel about something and why you feel that way about something without bringing in added tone, snark or cynicism. “I don’t like this thing and here’s why” is always more accurate than “this thing is stupid” or “this thing sucks.”

Always keep your criticisms to the ideas themselves, not the people that have them. Referring to someone as “stupid” does not in any way advance a conversation. Even criticizing an idea by calling it “stupid” is counterproductive. It’s okay for criticism to be blunt or direct so long as it is constructive. Expressing your displeasure for something is not offering criticism. Explaining why you don’t like something is much more constructive. This will help the other person account for your bias.

Pejoratives are going to happen. Many times we don’t mean them. Be patient with people, and give them plenty of leeway. The best way to respond to a pejorative is to challenge them to offer you a more constructive response. Use them to get the other person talking, to get them back on track. Often you’ll find it’s just a difference in language or style which is easily forgiven.

(2) No second person

This speaks to the fundamental that I discussed above that you should address the idea, not the person. Taking second person out of your style altogether is a great way to force this approach.

Avoiding first person is trickier because you still need to say things like “I feel” “I believe” and “in my opinion” quite frequently. There also has to be room for discussing personal experiences that contributed to your ideas. Which is all fair and fine. But make sure the conversation is about the ideas and concepts that you are sharing with the other party and not about you. Ultimately the concepts that we discuss are bigger than us and attaching our egos to them only drags them down.

(3) No Rhetorical Questions

I firmly believe that if you have a statement you should make a statement. If you would like to ask a question it’s okay to ask a question. But one of my biggest pet peeves is when people put question marks on the ends of statements.

Rhetorical devices are designed for debates. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Rhetorical questions are pathological. They’re designed for an audience during a debate. Using social media as a debate platform rather than an honest forum is exactly what we’re trying to get away from. Grandstanding your ideas will diminish your credibility.

(4) Let them be wrong.

This is a very important rule of social media discourse. You have to let some things go. There seems to be a very human urge to correct someone every time they get a fact wrong. I know I often feel that way and I think a lot of other people do too. I suspect you know what I’m talking about. That feeling is ego. We want to be right and we want people to know that we are right.

But if you disagree over a factual point it’s important to table it and move on. It’s okay for people to be wrong. Let them be wrong.

You can use this the other way too. If someone challenges you on a simple fact that you don’t really want to get in to, you can tell them straight out “if you think I’m wrong, then let me be wrong.” Disputes of facticity are impasses. Do not waste time on them.

Unilateral Discussion Tactics

This system (the fundamentals and guidelines) obviously work best if all parties are aware of them and operate on the same schedule and according to the same standard. However that is rarely the case. The beauty of subjectivist philosophies is that they can still be applied unilaterally. What I mean by this is that if you do enter into a conversation with someone who is not as earnest or honest as you are you can still get plenty out of it. If they show no interest in any of your ideas or any desire to understand where you’re coming from you can still carry your half of the conversation by exploring their ideas and trying to reach an understanding of where they are coming from. I have a few tips for getting the most out of a unilateral effort.

(1) Always Listen

If you ever encounter someone who is a fool or is acting a fool the preeminent feeling is to respond with instruction. This is a waste. They are not listening. You may rationalize this by assuming that other people are listening, that you’re making points for them. That’s not usually the case. The first step is to abandon any agenda you have for sharing your own ideas and focus on learning from theirs.

Remember that discourse is always about finding out where another person is coming from. Whatever viewpoint they have, no matter how ridiculous it is or how dishonest they are, they are coming from somewhere. They don’t care enough to understand your perspective, so the only to maintain honest discourse is to care enough about theirs.

Some people offer bad ideas because they have poor communication skills or are using a poor communication style. It can be very frustrating to deal with people who suffer from either or both of these attributes, but it’s also very good practice to try to understand them. It’s important to learn different styles and adapt to the different levels of communication skills that people have. If you’re stuck in an otherwise useless conversation, this may be something you can work on to get some real value from it. There’s a Zen adage that says “people who frustrate you the most are gifts because they give you the best opportunities to practice your patience.”

Also, people who refuse to listen or “wait to talk” rarely have good ideas. If you ever find yourself asking “why should I give a shit about what they have to say if they obviously don’t give a shit about what I have to say?” The answer is simple. You don’t want to end up like them. Listening is a skill you always have to practice, and the more challenging it is to find something of value in someone’s discourse the better practice you’re getting. There’s a Zen adage that says “people who frustrate you the most are gifts because they give you the best opportunities to practice your patience.” Don’t pass too quickly on a chance to practice your listening skills. They will always need to improve.

And finally remember that if there are other people watching your conversation you are representing your viewpoint. Whatever position you stand for represent it with class and respectability. If you believe in a cause you need to represent it as something that people should want to join. Represent yourself as someone that people want to work with and be like. Always be kind. And if you can’t be kind, be fair.

(2) Challenge them to define their values and terms

Along the lines of the “always listen,” one way to improve a conversation is to challenge the other party to bring something more into it. A lot of miscommunication comes from different interpretation of terms so when you get stuck it can help to ask them to define their terms. This is especially helpful if they are equivocating or generalizing. Rather than call them out as being disingenuous, ask probing questions and challenge them. Give them the chance to demonstrate that they are being honest. Ask them what they mean. (And avoid rhetorical questions in doing so. That’s patronizing.)

Challenging them to define their values is also helpful. A lot of argumentation stems from different interpretation of values as well as different interpretation of terms. Unlike definitions, you can’t just look them up in the dictionary. Challenging a person to define their values not only gives you an opportunity to better understand where they’re coming from but it gives both parties involved an opportunity to better frame the discussion. By showing a willingness to listen you are appealing to their ego to share something valid and valuable, and you are establishing trust by demonstrating that you are willing to hear them out. A lot of people I’ve conversed with go into a social media discussion with cynicism as their default mood (and not unreasonably). They usually come across as disingenuous. Keep in mind that they probably start with the same assumption about you. Give them the chance to prove you wrong. If they don’t take that chance it may be a sign that you should move on.

(3) “Agree to disagree,” but understand what that means.

“Agree to disagree” is an odd term but it’s one that makes sense to me the context of a larger philosophy that I’ve developed (a form of pragmatic subjectivism I call the Agency Mandate, which is where all of these practices and ideas came from). In the context of honest discourse it has a specific meaning.

First it’s important to define and understand what we mean by disagreement. When people say “I disagree” it usually means that they have a different opinion. But from a semantic standpoint it’s difficult to see differences in opinion as matters of disagreement.

I think this is best explained if I illustrate with an example. If I say “I like Metallica” and you say “I disagree,” your response is semantically ridiculous. What you’re saying is that you don’t think that I like Metallica. Which, if you really want to think that (or if you have evidence that I am lying) I suppose that’s up to you, but its’ a matter of opinion. You don’t get to decide what I like and what I don’t like. It’s extremely patronizing to assume that someone is lying about their own opinion.

When you say that you disagree what you probably mean is that you don’t like Metallica. But if that’s the case it’s less ambiguous to say “I don’t like Metallica.” That’s well within the realm of honest discourse. Two people have different opinions, they explain their opinions, and if they have a successful discussion they walk away with better understandings of each other’s perspective. When you engage in discourse instead of argumentation there’s no need to resolve differences of opinion. I can like Metallica and you can dislike them. I wouldn’t call that an argument.

Matters of fact are different. If I say “Master of Puppets was released before Ride the Lightning” and you say “I disagree,” that’s not ambiguous. I’m proposing a statement of fact and you’re contesting it’s facticity. We can look it up and discover that you were right and I was wrong, and we can move on with our conversation.

A fact by definition is demonstrably true but not all facts can be immediately referenced. If I say “The Los Angeles Rams will win the Super Bowl in the year 2020” that’s a statement of fact. If you disagree then one of us will be right and one of us will be wrong. But there’s no way for us to verify the fact until the event comes to pass.

In the context of discourse a disagreement is a unverifiable act. In that case the best course is to identify that a fact is contested but irresolvable and work around it. If that impasse brings your conversation to a conclusion then that’s that. But if there are other points for you to discuss, other opinions to explore or other facts to consider, then you can move on to those. “Agreeing to disagree” then is simply identifying that one path of discourse has come to an impasse due to a disputed and unverifiable statement of fact and agreeing to pursue other avenues of discourse. This practice is best done in congress of all parties but if you keep this in mind if can be accomplished unilaterally as well. Understand this practice makes it easy to keep discourse going without inducing much emotional friction.

The reason I included this rather lengthy section in “Unilateral Tactics” is that most people you discuss with are not going to be operating with the same definition or understanding of “agreeing to disagree,” or even the same understanding of truth, fact and opinion. Short of showing them this section and instructing them on its nuances you should find it easy to steer the conversation by keeping this section in mind without

(4) Give them a chance, but know when (and how) to disengage.

It’s important to give people a chance. But on the other hand we can’t allow ourselves to get sucked into every toxic conversation that people try to drag us into. It’s important to know when to step away from a conversation.

This is where creating space for conversation is so important. Know what it is that you’re willing to discuss and not discuss. Knowing exactly what conversations you refuse to participate in will help you avoid most of these situations. The better you understand your personal limits the more consistent and fair you will be in keeping them.

Some of the people we talk to have value to us outside of our conversation. It’s most important for us to have these conversations with the people close to us, with our neighbors our peers and our co-workers. It’s important to respect that relationship…

Sometimes our values are going to be more important than our relationships. I can certainly respect that. Our core values should be more important to us than our family. But usually family is part of our values. It can be difficult and complicated. If you need to avoid a conversation altogether for lack of a reasonable and respectful approach that’s your decision to make and I will certainly respect that. Your friends should too.

Some people may seem like strangers to us but are part of our extended circle. A stranger to you may be a friend of a friend, or a future boss. Always keep your relationship with the person in mind even if it doesn’t seem to be important at the time. As long as you have good core values and consistent and fair with them you should be able to stay out of trouble. But if at any point in the run of discourse you realize that you risk putting strain on a relationship you need to have a full understanding of the risk you are taking and you have to own it with purpose and intent.

Sometimes we interact with people who absolutely have no relationship or no value to us. It can be tempting to be rude, to make a point, to succumb to your id or your ego. To be clear I have no problem with being confrontational with someone if it is truly warranted and you keep to your core values (hopefully honesty and basic decency are among them) in doing so. Often our core values mandate confrontation. But being vindictive and mean serve no tactical purpose. Pejoratives have no conceptual or ideological value.

But strangers, especially strangers who have already demonstrated a disregard of common courtesy, present an opportunity that we don’t have with friends and neighbors. If there is truly no further value to your relationship then that relationship is disposable and can be put willingly and wantonly at risk. This may be a good opportunity to try new tactics and approaches that you would not be willing to try with someone that you know personally. But whatever approach you take it is important to always be consistent with your core values in how you treat them. Be absolutely sure that you are not rationalizing an ego trip as a genuine learning opportunity.

And let people be wrong. You don’t have to engage everyone. You don’t have to (and literally cannot) fix everything and educate everyone. If someone has no relationship to you and their ideas and concepts have no value to you the best course is to ignore them completely. You owe them nothing.