afternoon of June 18, ZEIT ONLINE is inviting people with opposing political
viewpoints to sit down for a face-to-face discussion (all information on "Germany
Talks" can be found here). Some of those talks will be contentious, and perhaps
even heated. After all, participants will be meeting up with people who see the
world completely differently from themselves.
Conflict and disagreement researchers have come up with a few rules that can help you ensure that such political debates are more productive. We have collected 10 of them.
1. Try to truly understand
Listen closely when your conversation partner is speaking and try to understand the core of what they are saying. Summarize what you have heard. You can, for example, say something like: "If I have understood you correctly, your concern is …" or "Your point, then, is that ..." Only then can you be sure that you have correctly understood what the other finds important. In nonviolent communication theory, this is known as "active listening."
2. Stay on topic
In the heat of discussion, people often tend to abruptly change the subject at decisive points or to voice a variety of opinions in quick succession. That leads to a situation in which the point of contention is lost sight of before it can be explored in-depth. Don't go along with that. Moderate the discussion and ask a follow-up question: "That sounds to me like a different issue. Could you first explain what you meant when you said ...?"
3. Ask as many open questions as possible
Ask open questions. By doing so, you are demonstrating a desire to truly understand your conversation partner's viewpoint. It also helps establish a solid foundation for further discussion on both a personal and contextual level. The most important question for a successful debate is: "Why do you think that …?"
4. Find common ground
It is possible to find common ground in every discussion and with every conversation partner. Make it clear when you are in agreement. That creates a positive atmosphere for further discussion and helps determine the point at which your viewpoints drift apart. It may be that your positions aren't as far apart as you first thought.
5. Do not lecture your conversation partner
Lecturing demonstrates superior knowledge and leads your conversation partner to become defensive. Avoid moralizing. Ask further questions instead and establish personal links: "Have you ever had the experience that …?"
6. Substantiate your viewpoint
Your opinion is important. But little is gained from the mere clash of opposing opinions. For a true discussion, it is vital to explain why you hold the opinion that you do. Substantiate your viewpoint and ask your conversation partner to do the same. Simple statements of opinion and assertions don't promote a healthy discussion.
7. Be sympathetic in your interpretations
Don't pounce on the obvious weaknesses in your conversation partner's arguments. Try to interpret every argument in the best possible light and to address the strongest version of the point being made – even if your conversation partner isn't able to perfectly develop that argument. In communication theory, this is known as the "principle of goodwill."
8. Be matter-of-fact in your criticism
Correct inaccurate information. Point out rash conclusions and generalizations. Call attention to incomplete or inconsistent areas in your conversation partner's reasoning. But be sparing with criticism and avoid open confrontation if possible.
Emotions often become heated during discussions. Make sure that your conversation partner doesn't lose face when you voice criticism. Use an occasional joke or a dash of irony and talk about your emotions and those of your conversation partner. Say something like: "I see that this issue makes me/you angry." The most important thing is to stay calm.
10. Change perspective
Often, discussions don't just fail due to differences of opinion, but because of opposing moral concepts. In such cases, it can be helpful to adopt the perspective of your conversation partner and imagine how you might argue if you adhered to the same moral concept. If, for example, family values are particularly important to your conversation partner, you could try to make your point from this perspective. In scientific discourse, this is known as "reframing." In doing so, however, it is important to remain authentic and to avoid transgressing your own limits.
Translated by Charles Hawley und Daryl Lindsey