How to Bring Reason Back Into Conversations

Luke Whitmore

respectful dialogue, critical thinking, public discourse, people talking, conversation, respect, politics, emotional response

We often allow our predetermined beliefs to guide how we relate to other people. Look no further than politicians who speak about each other or groups they disagree with, using negative and, at times, highly charged rhetoric. I don’t know about you, but I find some despair and anxiety seeping into my psyche every time I read about, witness, or hear these types of exchanges. Is every disagreement, political or otherwise, now destined to be felt as a personal attack? How can we bring critical thinking and respectful dialogue back into our conversations?

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recently tweeted:

“Weak arguments start by criticizing the person behind an idea. Strong arguments begin by criticizing the content of the idea.

“Attacking the author reveals defensiveness and invites counterattacks. Refuting the message reveals civility and invites dialogue” (February 19, 2019).

How does the way we engage with each other affect our personal lives and relationships? It is increasingly obvious that how we “see” the other person – whether we like them or not, or what we perceive they stand for – determines whether we are willing to engage in respectful dialogue with them. It often translates into, “If I don’t like you or the group you’re affiliated with, I will automatically disagree with what you have to say and won’t take the time to listen to you.” This happens because:

  1. We presume the other person will lie
  2. We assume we will disagree with their opinions
  3. Listening may indicate our tacit approval of their opinions to our “group”

If you subscribe to the notion that British philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill posited – defining democracy as “government by discussion” – then it’s clear that we need to find our way through these patterns of thought.

 Emotional reasoning distorts the truth and negatively affects our ability to engage in respectful dialogue with each other.

Perhaps, along with making space for curiosity and empathy, we can find our way through these difficult conversations and stop the cycle of character attacks. Here are some ways we can put our “emotional brains” on hold and invite critical thinking back into our conversations:

  1. Check your assumptions. We don’t uncover our own assumptions until we take a step back and clearly identify our own values and beliefs. Just think what a difference this would make when engaging with others! Focusing on what’s being said instead of the perceived moral failings of the other person will lead to respectful dialogue with each other.
  2. Do not automatically attack the person and/or their character. The Latin term for this is ad hominem which means, “to the man (or person).” This usually arises when we distrust the motives of the other person and try to discredit them as a result. We avoid addressing the subject or central idea of the discussion because we are too busy attacking the person’s character or motivations.
  3. Avoid conformity or “groupthink.” Although we espouse a great affinity for individualism in western culture, we tend to conform to the opinions of those around us. These are the people or groups that we identify with, and sometimes we conform to their ideas to keep the peace and avoid being rejected. Groupthink can cause us to make faulty decisions because we value unity with the group over dissenting opinions.
  4. Do not resort to emotional reasoning. This seems to be a widespread issue today because our opinions can be shared more readily. For example, our initial emotional reaction to something we disagree with can easily be shared on social media. This leads to an explosion of opinions in cyberspace before there has been any sober second thought. Emotional reasoning distorts the truth and negatively affects our ability to engage in respectful dialogue with each other.

I hope it has been helpful to think about how these common issues have seemingly become more present in our public and private discourse. Remember, we have two ears and one mouth, so a little more listening and a little less talking might be better for all of us!


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Trish Harper, MSW, RSW
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.To receive notification of a new blog posting, subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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