An Explanation For Why We Don’t Learn From Others In A Debate

Justus Frank
Jun 19 · 6 min read

I’ve always been interested in debates, so it has been somewhat of a surprise to me that I find less and less value in them. Despite my best intentions, I recently got into another facebook debate with someone. I came away feeling that we had both wasted our time and neither of us had actually learnt anything much either. While this certainly wasn’t the first time, it did cause me to reflect once again on my actions in this area.

One key thing that I have learnt over the past few years (or maybe I should say, ‘what I have been learning’, as it is taking some time to sink in) is that you cannot change people. Only you can change yourself and only I can change myself. Now people may change in a variety of ways based on their interactions with you but again, you have no control as to how that change may manifest. As an example, if you act in kindness towards someone that you have a disagreement with they may change their own attitude towards you into reciprocated kindness or they may just escalate animosity as your kindness may have come across as being manipulative in some way. You do not have ultimate control over how they will take your kindness. This doesn’t mean you are helpless, as I will show later in the article, it just means that we need to let go of the control mindset.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me to go along with him to a Christian apologetics conference. Earlier in my life, I had been very interested in Christian apologetics and in fact, this is where much of my interest in debates had come from. One of the slogans of the organisation that hosted the conference was “Defend Faith”. I began to mull over this phrase and I noticed something interesting; as soon as we set out to ‘defend’ a position we have immediately also stopped the conversation. A conversation involves two people sharing things that are of interest to each other and learning from one another. But in a debate, learning is not the aim and is excluded, defence and attack is the aim. When at least one of the two people talking with each other has a debate mindset they will find a continual source of ‘rescuing devices’ to defend their position. This is what I experienced in my debate mentioned at the start of this article and this can readily be seen in any debate you choose to watch. People can go to ridiculously extravagant lengths to keep rescuing their position to the point that the discussion seems to become absurd. However, most of the time this is not noticed by the person employing the rescuing devices and they will just keep charging on.

Often debates are portrayed as two people putting forward arguments for their position and then the most logical one will win and ‘convert’ people to a new way of thinking. But I am convinced that this is not how it works. We don’t change our minds unless we already highly esteem the other person and are convinced that they will say something that is going to be valuable to our lives. We are not looking to be argued into changing our minds, however, we are always looking for explanations.

As humans, we are curious and want to know why things are the way they are. Children, in particular, show a great deal of curiosity. We are ready to listen to explanations from those we deem to be an authority on the subject that we are interested in. And how do we pick those whom we deem to be authoritative? By looking at their lives and their actions. The phrase, “Actions speak louder than words” is important to remember. We learn to respect someone not by their words, but by their actions. Once we see the value of certain knowledge in a person’s life we are also ready to listen to an explanation as to why they act the way they do.

When I think back on all the major changes of thinking in my life, they all follow this pattern:

I became interested in someone because either because of their experience in a certain area or because I see something in their life that attracts me and makes me curious. I am curious enough to listen to why they hold the convictions they do and seriously consider what they are saying. I am not saying that I will fully agree every time, but I am not in a debate or defensive mindset.

What I am saying, if true, has major implications on so much of life. My area of interest is education and it is interesting to see how this thinking would apply here. As noted earlier, children are very curious. They want explanations for things, but they particularly want explanations from people whom they can see actually doing whatever they want to learn. As an example, children learning soccer/football may not be particularly inspired to perform the actions their coach instructs them in if they have not really seen their coach perform the skill. In my experience as a schoolteacher and soccer coach, just telling a child how to hit a ball hard usually doesn’t produce that many positive results. However, if the children see me kicking a ball very hard and fast during a lunch break, they are more likely to come up to me and ask, “How do you hit the ball like that?” If they saw Christiano Ronaldo kicking a play hard they would probably listen even more intensely and put even greater weight on his explanation. Note that this is not a guarantee, but it does make it more likely.

When we are learning from someone we must actually see a real example of what we are trying to achieve. If you want someone to learn something, show the value of it in your own life first. Do not presume its value to someone else’s life and then try to force learning on that person. This is why I am highly critical of the schooling system because all of schooling is based on a curriculum that decides what is good for the child preemptively and seeks to force this on the child. Children generally do not have the choice to ask advice only from people that they are genuinely inspired by.

I like it when conversations are applicable right in the moment, so I will finish this article with another example by using this article itself. Will anyone change their mind based on this article I have written? Well, my prediction is; from those people who started this article with a different conviction to me:

  • Some people reading this article may know a bit about who I am and have some respect for who I am. They will probably read this explanation of the way I try to live my life and they will contemplate it.
  • There may be others who may know a bit about who I am but do not have much respect for me. They will probably dismiss this.
  • Now, a final group of people are those reading this article who really may not have any idea as to who I am. My prediction is that it will not be the arguments first and foremost that will cause someone to listen to what I have to say. It is whether or not the reader perceives honesty, courage and integrity in the way that I write that will determine how open they will be to contemplating this explanation and possibly changing their mind.

Debates are tempting because, in one sense, they are also very easy. Conversations, on the other hand, require curiosity and humility which take much more courage in our increasingly divisive culture. Will you join me in leaving behind debates and embracing conversations?

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Justus Frank

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Justus has a passionate interest in how humans actually learn. He now seeks conversations regarding learning and personal growth at www.frankeducation.nz

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