At its best, discussion deepens understanding and illuminates issues. At its worst, it frays nerves, creates animosity and leaves issues unresolved. Unfortunately, the most prominent models for discussion in contemporary culture--radio and TV talk shows--often produce the latter effects.
Often as not, when two guests are debating on a radio or TV program, each takes a turn interrupting while the other shouts "Let me finish." Neither shows any desire to learn from the other. Here are some simple guidelines for ensuring that the discussions you engage in are more civil, meaningful, and productive than what you see on TV.
Whenever possible, prepare in advance. Not every discussion can be prepared for in advance, but many can--for example, those for which an agenda or schedule is distributed in advance. Use this information to prepare for discussion. Begin by reflecting on what you already know about the topic. Then decide how you can expand your knowledge and devote a little some time to doing so. Twenty minutes of focused searching on the Internet can produce a significant amount of information on almost any subject. Finally, try to anticipate the different points of view that might be expressed in the discussion and consider the merits of each. Keep your conclusions tentative so that you will be open to the facts and interpretations others will present.
Set reasonable expectations. Have you ever left a discussion disappointed that others hadn't abandoned their views and embraced yours? Have you ever felt offended when someone challenged your ideas? If the answer to either question is yes, you probably expect too much of others. Expect to have your ideas questioned and be cheerful and gracious in responding. View people's questions and challenges as opportunities to demonstrate how reasonable your ideas are.
Leave egotism and personal agendas at the door. If you feel that you are more important than other participants or harbor resentment toward them, chances are you won't give their ideas a fair hearing and the discussion will be disappointing to everyone. To avoid that outcome, approach every discussion with a positive, respectful attitude toward the other participants.
Contribute but don't dominate. If you love to talk and have much to say, you probably contribute more to discussions than other participants. On the other hand, if you are more reserved, you may seldom say anything. There is nothing wrong with being either kind of person. Yet discussions tend to be most productive when everyone contributes. For this to happen, talkative people need to exercise a little restraint and more reserved people need to accept responsibility for participating.
Avoid distracting speech mannerisms. Such mannerisms include starting one sentence and then abruptly switching to another; mumbling or slurring your words; and punctuating every phrase or clause with audible pauses ("um," "ah,") or meaningless expressions ("like," "you know," "man"). These annoying mannerisms distract people from your message. To overcome them, listen to yourself when you speak. Even better, tape your conversations with others (with their permission), then play the tape back and listen to yourself. Aim to speak directly, clearly and concisely.
Listen actively. Listening problems can be traced to the fact that the mind can receive and process ideas faster than the fastest speaker can deliver them. Whenever the mind gets tired of waiting, it wanders about aimlessly like a dog off its leash. You may be familiar with the result. Instead of listening to the speaker's words, you think about other things or about what you will say when it is your turn to speak. Be alert for such distractions and resist them. If you catch your mind wandering, quickly bring it back to the task.
Judge ideas responsibly. Ideas vary in quality, so they need to be evaluated. However, many people judge them too quickly, especially unfamiliar ones. To be a better judge of ideas, put aside your initial impression and take the time to understand them. Then make your assessment on their strengths and weaknesses. And don't be afraid to change your mind for a good reason--doing so is a mark of integrity.
Resist the urge to shout or interrupt. Shouting and interrupting are not merely rude--they often signal intellectual insecurity. If you really believe your ideas are sound, you will have no need to raise your voice or to break in on others. Even if others do so, you will show character by refusing to reciprocate. Learn to disagree without being disagreeable. And remember Stanley Horowitz's insight, "Nothing lowers the level of conversation more than raising the voice."
Vincent Ryan Ruggerio is author of the new book, Making Your Mind Matter: Strategies for Practical Intelligence (2004; MindPower, Inc.). For more information about the author and his work, visit www.mindpower inc.com.