Turning Straw into Steel

I love a good debate, but I think that one of my biggest areas for personal growth is my ability to preserve the relationship while advocating my position.  I often find myself so wrapped up in making my case that I forget I am engaged in conversation with another human.  My attention is consumed by ensuring the soundness of my argument rather than the soundness of the connection between us.  Although I may end up getting the conversational upper-hand, I do so at the cost of damaging the relationship.  Why do I allow this to happen?  It happens because I am choosing the wrong mode of discourse.  I am using debate even though I rarely find myself in a situation that requires true debate.  Normal, everyday situations require dialog.  These two words, debate and dialog, sound alike but they are very different both in their form and in their purpose.  Debate is a formal argument, the point of which is to persuade, although the target of your persuasion may an audience and not even your fellow debater.  Debates belong on a stage, with rules and a moderator.  The highest purpose of debate is the advancement of ideas.  Relationships are secondary, if that.  

The situations that we encounter in our daily lives require dialog, not debate.  Dialog serves a very different purpose and should take on a very different structure.  The purpose of dialog is to learn.  Notice I did not say "teach".  Each participant in a dialog is responsible for their own learning.  This obligation to learn is the cost of admission.  When you engage in dialog with partners, each of whom has the obligation to learn, what emerges is a flow of information, a give-and-take of ideas.  The interaction is marked by a mutual respect for the other person and an honoring of their perspective.  In the end, a beautiful byproduct of healthy dialog is a deepening and strengthening of the relationship.  In fact, when it comes to dialog, the relationship is the end game.  

Why is it so easy to get wrapped up in my own perspective at the expense of the relationship?  Part of the answer is purely related to my ego.  On some level I fear being wrong, or less, in the eyes of others and I fight for the only thing that I have in the moment…my ideas. Many of us have strong egos.  What can we do to ensure our ego doesn't dominate?  Here are three suggestions...

  1. Notice and name the type of conversation.  As early as you possibly can, identify they type of conversation that best suits the situation.  We've already discussed two types, dialog and debate.  Another common mode of conversation that falls somewhere in between is called advocating.  At the start of the interaction, or as soon as you realize it is happening, stop and declare your intentions.  Are you going to hold the discussion as a debate, dialog, or will you be advocating?  Ask your partner(s) to declare the same.  There is nothing worse than thinking you're engaging in dialog when your counterpart is in debate.  Being explicit about the type of conversation you are going to have may feel a little awkward at first, but this will fade quickly and you'll be better for it.  
  2. Practice steelmanning.  Most of us have heard the term, "strawman argument".  This is where you inaccurately portray your counterpart's position so that you can more easily knock down their argument.  For example, I might say, "if we let people drive at whatever speed they want, people will die.  Children will die."  I might say this in a debate about the speed limit where I believe the limit should be 55 and my opponent believes 65 is more appropriate.  By using a strawman, we separate ourselves from our conversation partner.  It is a powerful, albeit divisive debate technique.  Steelmanning is where you describe your counterpart's position perfectly to the point where they agree with your characterization without exception.  By describing their position in your own words, you ensure that you have a true understanding of their perspective.  To obtain this level of understanding you'll need to listen intently and ask lots of questions to clarify their motives and hidden beliefs.  The process of steelmanning serves to bring you closer to your conversation partner.  Whenever you find yourself in a heated discussion, the practice of steelmanning will serve you well. 
  3. Monitor your post-conversation energy level.  Examine your energy level after you've engaged in a discussion.  Do you feel drained?  If so, you probably failed to connect with your conversation partner.   If you feel super-charged with anger, you probably missed the mark.  If you feel comfortably energized, there is a good chance you connected well.  After a conversation where you failed to connect, the next step is to examine the conversational mode that you were using.  Were you in debate when you should have been in dialog?  Were you and your conversation partner using different modes?  Unfortunately, it is too late to get that conversation back, but you can still learn something from it and make sure you don't make the same misstep next time.  

We all cherish our own ideas and we hold our beliefs dear.  Ironically, our ideas and beliefs come to life when we are sharing them with other people.  

We interact with people every day.  For most of us, most of the time, our conversations more about the relationship than the ideas themselves.  Keeping this in sight will ensure the relationship is there the next time we want it.    

If you care to share your own related experiences, feel free to post them in the comments section below or you can email us at [email protected].

Prosperous Journey,

-Mike Herzog


Photocredit:  Pete Wright


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