Facilitating and Participating in Intelligent Discourse

Dennis J. McWherter, Jr. bio photo By Dennis J. McWherter, Jr. Comment

We all have egos. There, I said it. But it€™s true and, in fact, incredibly important to life as we know it. Consider a world where no one had an ego: nothing would get accomplished. There would be no opinions or contradictory thoughts to advance the world in any meaningful way. This all sounds pretty awful, but I€™m sure all of us have experienced at one point or the other the €œdark€ side of egos. Someone is simply too stubborn to level or come to terms with a new idea. This is incredibly counterproductive to facilitating intelligent thought and conversation among peers.

I like to think of an ego like fire: it is both incredibly powerful and useful when used properly, but when mishandled or out of control can certainly be catastrophic. Man has€“ more or less€“ mastered fire, though there are still constant reminders of its power in the form of wildfires, accidents (out of control), and arson (misuse of fire) which often claim many lives. The same is true with our ego€™s. In particular, they can be powerful tools to forcing our message to be heard and begin an intelligent dialog while they can also be used to simply subdue superior ideas in favor of pride.

Then the question is how do we harness this power for good? I think there are a few major things we can do to make it useful.

  1. DO be assertive. This is more important (and some times difficult) than it might seem. If you€™re afraid to assert your ideas, they will not be heard and will quickly be dismissed. If you truly have a strong belief/opinion/idea with adequate forethought, you owe it to both yourself and those around you to share this idea; you€™re enlightening them and helping them grow while you get to further develop your own thoughts through discourse.
  2. DON€™T fear criticism. I cannot stress this point enough. It may, in fact, directly correlate to the reason you show a lack of assertiveness. Criticism is actually a good thing. Now, sometimes you may receive criticism with emotional hostility, but ignore the emotion (easier said than done, I know) and observe the argument to see if it has any merit. If so, this is something you should consider to improve your own ideas.
  3. DO have an open mind. You should always approach an intelligent conversation with the notion that your ideas may be underdeveloped or simply incorrect. This is a good thing, believe it or not. The more you learn, the less ignorant you become which gives you the opportunity to continue to grow. If you hold on to your antiquated ideas you are simply hurting yourself.
  4. DON€™T ridicule others. So this borders more on the emotional side of things, but it€™s actually important to only discuss the idea and not attack the presenter. People have to learn in some way or other, so if they misunderstand just try to help them arrive at better conclusions. Besides, when you do this the €œdark-side€ of the ego wins since this behavior turns most people off and the conversation no longer remains productive.
  5. DO ask questions and challenge ideas. If someone discredits your idea in a discussion, don€™t be afraid to ask questions. The intent here is not to attack their ideas because they bested yours, but instead it€™s to truly understand their point of view. It is important to remember that simply because someone found a whole in your idea, it does not necessarily mean that their idea is infallible either. While the intent of asking questions and moving the focus of the discussion to their idea is to actually find these wholes in their arguments, it shouldn€™t be done with hostility but genuine intellectual curiosity.

When you look at the list you€™ll notice a common theme of breaking things down in a respectful way. What€™s more, I would argue that this idea is not new in and of itself. In fact, I believe this process has been formalized as the Scientific Method. People tend to misunderstand the scientific method as a series of steps to show their idea is correct. On the contrary, the scientific method is used for the exact opposite: it is used to tear down €œreasonable€ hypothesis and to advance knowledge and insight into a topic.

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