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Monday, May 30, 2011

Rules for Civilized Discussion

Good Advice For Discussion
  1. Realize that a dialogue should not be about you, the opponent, the turf, or the superiority but about making the right decision. Accept the fact that you just might be wrong and treat the opposition with respect.
  2. There are two parts to every argument: A position and a bunch of points that support it. Always separate them and be clear on them both. “I support solution A. The reasons for my recommendation are as follows…” On the flip side, learn to identify and separate these two parts in your opponent’s argument. If you can’t do so reliably, ask for clarification.
  3. Never accept an argument that you don’t understand. Ask for clarification.
  4. To each decision, there are objectives (what we want to achieve) and alternatives (how we can achieve it). Are you disagreeing on the objectives or on the alternatives? Make it clear and ask the opponent to clarify their position. This is very important as often there is a lengthy raging battle over easily reconcilable implementation preferences.
  5. Not to belabor this, but…choose the language both you and your opponent understand.
  6. When you make your point, nothing is as effective as the masterful command of the language and use of relevant examples and metaphors.
  7. Often, your opponent will pass his beliefs and opinions for an unquestionable truth. So, be on guard for and readily reject ad hominem attacks (when your opponent targets your persona and not your argument). For example: “I don’t see how this approach can ever work, coming from someone who can’t control his weight, let alone an initiative of this importance!”
  8. Watch out for arguments that say that something is right just because it is either new or old. These are known as ad novitam and ad antiquam arguments.
  9. Don’t fall for arguments that rely on wide acceptance and popularity. What’s right for many is not necessarily right for you, even if the others are in the same industry, market, or building.
  10. Beware of the straw man attackswhich happen when the opposition objects not to your position but to a similar but much weaker and sometimes ridiculous one. For instance, you say: “I am of the opinion that this application will not resolve the issue, because…” Your opponent retorts, ignoring your argument: “Julie, of all people, I wouldn’t expect to hear it from the CIO that high technology is not the way to go!”
  11. Red herring anyone? Watch for arguments with little to no connection to the issue at stake, which are introduced to misdirect the attention of you and the rest of the audience. This also often happens inadvertently.
  12. Sometimes you may lose on the basis of unobtainable perfection. Your way may be the best available but not perfect, while “perfect” is either out of the question or not viable, such as due to prohibitive costs. When you feel that the conversation has fallen into this rut, call a spade a spade, invite the other party to acknowledge that perfection is not possible, and talk about mitigation of the imperfections. You may still lose this battle, but you’ll know you have done your best.
You have probably noticed that in a number of points I advised you to “watch out” or “beware of” or to “be on guard” against various acts of chicanery. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t commit these transgressions either. The Golden Rule applies.

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