On Civilized Discourse

There are a lot of different essays and documents on having a civilized discussion with someone else. This is mine. I’ve updated a few things.

It contains points that I most often forget and thus am in more often need of a reminder. You are welcome to use what you like and ignore what you don’t.

By the way, I strongly discourage the beating of any rules or guidelines over someone’s head. Remember, discourse must be consensual — that is, one may opt out at any time.

Sorry it’s a long list, but they each seemed important.

What, exactly, is wrong with everyone being right?
I’m surprised more people don’t ask this, and I’m surprised I don’t ask it more often, but, well, there it is. The answer to this question is probably going to reveal at least one block to the discussion.

When there is nothing useful coming from discussing an issue, when there is no marked progress, it is time to stop discussing the issue, at least for now. If the issue cannot be avoided, then it is time to avoid the social situation that supports it, at least for now.
You can always come back and talk about it, but sometimes the horse is lying there and being very still for a reason.

When “always”, “never”, “everyone”, “no one”, or other such sweeping statements appear in a discussion, it is usually a sign that the usefulness of discourse has stopped, at least for now.
Too much effort is spent refuting that which shouldn’t even be coming up in the first place. Plus, it distracts from the real issue being discussed when all sorts of useful energy is spent saying “No, not everybody think’s you’re a taco.” It’s perfectly fine saying “A lot of people seem to think I’m a taco.” and still get the point across without forcing the discussion into the Theory Of Blinders.

There are rarely only two choices, even if not all the choices are visible. In other words, lack of a visible alternative rarely means there isn’t one.
Sometimes, all it takes is to acknowledge that there might be other options. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

It is rare to find someone who can truly predict the future or read minds.
Really, really rare. Certainly some predictions can come true: “If I let this kitten go, it will fall into the blender”, but most of these involve some physical provable law. Human beings and their thoughts and motives are a whole ‘nother can of pepper spray.

If a potentially good outcome cannot be foreseen as well as a potentially bad outcome, then the act of prophecy should be immediately suspect.
As a rule, I recommend against using fortunetellers, especially if they only give one kind of advice. On the other hand, if you know they’re only going to give one kind of advice, it might still be useful, but keep the source in mind.

If there is a charitable interpretation, it should be used. In other words, use an interpretation that most directly leads to the desired outcome.
The biggest hurdle here is ego. The more you have invested in the state of conflict, the less likely you are to accept an interpretation that denigrates that energy expenditure. Keep the goal of the discussion in mind and consider interpretations of events that lead more readily to that goal. Of course, it helps to agree upon a desired outcome, first. That can be an adventure in itself, but can also lead very quickly to the end of the trouble, too.

Sometimes a person chooses the wrong words. This is forgivable, especially if they try to find the right ones once they realize the error. The usefulness of a discussion is directly proportional to the allowance of this margin of error.
Especially in the heat of the moment, a person can use words that were unintended or that were not useful, helpful, or kind. As long as you focus on the goal of the discussion, then recovery from such accidents is fairly painless.

Interrupting someone is always impolite. This is not to say it shouldn’t be done, but that it should be done sparingly, with respect to the person interrupted, and only when necessary.
Here’s a good example: “I’m sorry, I know you’re right in the middle of this explanation and I want to understand it, but I have to pee right now! Can you hang on for five minutes?”

“I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer when true.
Really. No one’s a genius, no one can anticipate every move, no one can predict the future or the actions of others. Practice in front of a mirror if you’re uncomfortable saying it. Practice accepting it when you hear it. It doesn’t mean anything other than exactly that.

No discussion is so vital it can’t be paused to collect obtainable facts.
This is especially true if there’s any sort of decision that must be made or course of action that must be chosen. There are plenty of facts that are unknowable, but there’s no excuse for things that can be learned with little effort. This is not to say that facts actually solve anything, but it gives everybody a chance to cool down while they get lost in Google.

If there isn’t visible blood or visible flame, chances are, there’s no rush.
Also Known As: “The Law of Chillin’”.

Authorities should be clearly identified.
By “Authorities”, I mean those from whom reliable data is acquired. You would think this is simple, but it’s been and will continue to be a real bugaboo. When you want to know the weight of the heaviest man, you look in the Guiness Book of World Records, not the “NaughtyPix” section of your son’s hard drive (although I’m not going to officially make any claims about your son’s hard drive contents. Just sayin’. We often make decisions based on the opinions of our respective Authorities. This is why it’s imperative to figure out what they are. Also, not all Authorities are best for all problems. For example, your best authority on what you think is you, but your best authority on what someone else thinks might not be. It might be… them!

Authorities should be considered with some degree of consistency.
However you value your Authority, you should consider it with some consistency if other factors are the same. For example: “This person lies like a rug, but in this instance I’ll believe her” is probably not a good place to go, unless it’s revealed “This person lies like a rug about her relationships with celebrities, but she is a demonstrated authority on XML, so I will ask her about my XML problem and ignore advice she offers regarding my lovelife with Keanu Reeves.”

If one person asks a question, the expectation is that the other person should answer it.
Questions exist to be answered, preferably by the person being asked. If it’s a “rhetorical question”, then it’s not really a query for information. Is it? There is a time for rhetorical questions, but in the heat of discourse probably isn’t one of those times.

If any one person in a discussion hasn’t spoken in more than five minutes, chances are, it’s not a discussion anymore.
Unless you’ve accepted payment to give a lecture, stop giving a lecture. It is perfectly acceptable to stop talking when you realize this and say “I didn’t mean to hog the floor. Sorry about that.” It is also perfectly acceptable to accept this as sufficient apology and move on. This is easier to enforce when you both need a mechanical device to speak. Then, you just start with one device and set a timer on it.

A motion to adjourn is always in order.
Okay, I stole this from Robert’s Rules of Order, but the fact remains that for any discourse to be useful, any player must be able to pull the plug, at least for now. It’s not uncommon for this to be used as a passive-aggressive method of controlling a conversation, but it’s usually good to offer the benefit of the doubt, at least for the first time or two, and depending on the circumstances under which it’s invoked.

The introduction of new or unforeseen elements in any discussion is not uncommon, but could possibly be treated with the same respect accorded such revelations at the end of a murder mystery — that is to say, none.
You know, at the end of a bad murder-mystery, the killer is revealed to be some complete and total stranger, some long-lost sibling, some past rival. Try as you might, you don’t find any clue of this person in the rest of the book. So, you feel cheated. You thought you had all you needed and you exerted effort to solve the puzzle and the author goes and pulls this crap. The same possibility exists when some new element is introduced into a discussion: “Oh, I forgot to mention that purple car seats enrage me! Grrrr!” Now, in any discourse, there is sure to be a bit of revelation, including self-revelation, so some leeway should be allowed. When a person introduces something new, a lot matters how they introduce it. Pay attention as best you can and be charitable.

It happens as it happens and it happened as it happened.
“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” is a nonsensical phrase. It happened as it happened and no one can control how it has already happened or how it was already said. The implication in this assertion is that the original speaker deliberately chose an obscure way of expressing something, when such is almost certainly not the case. This shifts the focus away from the issue and toward the person presenting it. You might as well announce that they shouldn’t have worn those shoes.

Don’t discuss stuff while hungry.

What, exactly, is wrong with everyone being right?
Just a reminder. By this time, I would have forgotten it, too.