The Three Rules of Productive Discourse

David Dylan Thomas
Feb 13, 2017 · 3 min read
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photo credit: Ryan Lash/TED

I gave a TED talk recently in which I tried to outline a way in which we could have productive conversations in a time when that seems like the last thing people are interested in doing. It mostly revolves around taking the ego out of it and abandoning all hope of a zero sum game and actually trying to fix something. It goes like this…

This assumes that if we had the answer, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Climate change would be solved. The refugee crisis would be handled. Women would have equal pay. We would have nothing to talk about.

But we do. We quite obviously have something to talk about so let’s talk about it not assert our own point of view about it. Let’s go in assuming that neither of us knows everything about the topic nor do we have the silver bullet for it already waiting in our pocket and we just have to convince the other that it IS the silver bullet. Instead let’s assume our mutual ignorance. Let’s assume that we’ll both learn something.

This is a very difficult rule. We go into these conversations assuming there has to be a winner. One of us will come away convincing the other that we’re right. Or one of us will come away at least feeling like we made a better argument.

But in this type of conversation, winning is not what we’re here to do because winning doesn’t actually solve anything. That’s the myth. We think if we win, we fix it. But we don’t. Winning just makes one of use feel better for a little while until the problem we were fighting about rears its ugly head again because we were too busy winning to actually solve it.

This reinforces the assumption that neither of us has the answer. It allows us to abandon the idea that we’re here to take something old and beat the other person over the head with it until they agree it’s right.

No, we’re here to take our collective knowledge and experience and create something that neither one of us has ever seen before. Because it’s going to take something neither one of us has seen before to get the job done. If not, we’d have seen it already and the job would be done. This assumes that we both have something of value to contribute to the outcome. This assumes the best in each of us, and not the worst.

So the next time you’re about to go to war with someone, see if they’re willing to agree to these three rules first and see if you can’t have a more productive conversation instead.

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