Conversing Well

In the year 2000, at age 12, I bought a copy of How To Win Friends and Influence People at a local bookstore in my hometown. Since then, I have made a passionate study of the art and philosophy of effective communication and its relationship with the social power dynamic, especially in the contexts of spirited debates and of applied game theory.

I can distill the state of my method thus;

  1. Be laconic
  2. Be loving
  3. Say what is useful

Be Laconic

Laconic: using very few words.

From Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People to Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, to Stephen King’s On Writing and many more, this rule is among the few axioms which transcends styles and genres of prose and interpersonal communication.

Be Loving

I often hear sardonic and imperious jokes about this principle of mine, quoting Orson Scott Card for example, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.”

I think Card has it right. Whether you intend to destroy the opponent or not, loving them and appreciating their perspective and motives is a critical first step which must necessarily precede any effective further steps.

It is critical to define a goal in your mind, even if that goal is simply to have a healthy and equitable friendship with the other person. Then you can attempt to truly understand their perspective and motives from a position of power; they have likely not taken the step of defining a goal. This leaves a motive vacuum in them which you can sculpt to match your own motives.

Say What is Useful

You have a goal, how do you get there?

It is usually best not to fight on the terms laid out by an opponent. I usually try to go to the core of the issue rather than debating the rhetoric of an argument on its own terms.

For example, a professor of logic once made a deductive argument for absolutism and god, followed by a simple misdirection challenge. He included examples from several ancient philosophers to support his conclusion, and said that unless any of us could draw a square circle, his conclusion was correct, and therefore there must be a god. He challenged us to try drawing a square circle if we disagreed with his conclusion.

Instead of arguing on his terms, I asked him whether his theory of absolutism could prove that either of us exist, or that the universe does. I gave examples from Plato’s Alegory of the cave to Descartes’ Evil Demon to support my critique, these were among the people he had used as sources in his argument. He was forced to concede that he can not prove those things, and that even the masters he cited concluded unanimously that the fundamental theory of absolutism is unprovable. I reminded him that a lack of disproof is not proof; at best he could make an inductive argument that his ideas seem likely to be true based on his interpretation.

If I had engaged him on his terms, I could not have won his concession in the argument, nor could I have effectively changed his mind on whether his conclusion was necessarily correct.

It is critical to successful and effective communication that we say what is useful, not our first reaction, and not quoting some talking point on the issue.