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How to Have a Conversation

Why are we so keen to debate all the time? It’s an aggressive term really isn’t it? An act of drawing your line in the sand and attempting to drag your opponent across it. Debates are something to be won; a competitive conversation that draws upon sophistry and rhetoric as much as logic and knowledge. The trouble with debates is that they are for people who have reached a fixed position and now aim to convince others of it.


Of course, if you are a politician trying to persuade the general public to vote for you then debates have a real and significant value, but for students? What exactly are we trying to achieve by teaching them to dig in and refuse to move?


Instead of debating, my new course is going to focused on the art of conversation. Our purpose is not to convince others that we are right but to learn more about the subject under discussion. We are not talking to win but to refine our ideas, add to our understanding and potentially change our minds. It is an act of good faith to converse and requires students to put aside assumptions and emotional responses.


But this is easier said than done. We are used to embarking on a conversation as if going into battle rather than a shared endeavour to move towards something approaching truth. So how can we have conversations that are both meaningful and unemotional?

In my new course we’re going to establish clear guidelines to allow conversation to flow productively without rancour but still allowing for critical challenge. These are my five rules of engagement:


1.       Clearly agree the scope of the conversation. What truth are we trying to establish? A successful conversation has an agreed topic and, while other topics might be identified as relevant or interesting, they will be noted down and dealt with at a later date.


2.       Define your terms. Most of the time, when conversations turn to arguments it is because the participants are talking at cross-purposes. Often the very process of agreeing the language that you will use is enough to find useful common ground. Avoid neologisms. Avoid terms which are necessarily subjective. Agree any words or terminology which are actively unhelpful.


3.       Keep it impersonal: personal anecdotes can prevent discussion as students hold back on expressing their positions for fear of causing offence or hurt.


4.       Listen. By which I do not mean waiting until the other person has stopped speaking. Make sure you know and clearly understand what has been said before thinking about questions, objections or criticisms.


5.       Change your mind. If you are faced with new evidence or if someone else has a more persuasive point of view, changing your mind is an act of intellectual strength.


My new course is focused on increasing understanding through careful reading, analysis and discussion. Drop me an email at nicola@englishandhistorytutor.com if you'd like to find out more.




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