7 Groundrules For An Intelligent Conversation

Everybody loves a great conversation. It is one of life’s simple pleasures. Sharing ideas and perspectives is a great way feel alive and connected. Looking back at the high points in your life, I hope there are some Intelligent Conversations in there.

So establishing some groundrules for an Intelligent Conversation can help you avoid getting sidetracked and wasting time. A groundrule is an agreement between everyone that is the foundation for what you are about to do. House rules is another common phrase used to describe groundrules.

Especially with all the political and financial news lately, there are many important things that are hard to talk about constructively.

Here is how to prepare for an Intelligent Conversation.

(1) Accept the other person WILL disagree with you.

This stops a lot of people right away. An Intelligent Conversation is not “cram your ideas down the other person’s throat”. The whole point of an Intelligent Conversation is to try and see the other person’s perspective. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t automatically make you wrong or stupid. Or them wrong or stupid!

It is best not to care if the other person comes around to your way of thinking or not. Your objective is not to prove the other person wrong, but to LEARN if your perspective is the most correct and useful.

If you want to have a conversation with someone that agrees with you, you can do that by yourself.

(2) No name calling or personal attacks. Ever!

This is an absolute requirement. Rather than saying “You’re a dumbass,” try “I disagree with that view, and here are my reasons why.”

Focus on ideas and concepts, not on the person sharing those ideas and concepts.

Telling someone why you think their idea is incorrect is vastly different than telling someone they’re stupid for thinking that way.

The first way will keep them open to what you’re saying, the second will make them defensive and they will stop listening.

(3) Always be polite.

There are many things included in this groundrule:

Listen first (Don’t interrupt.)

Be respectful and courteous (Don’t be condescending, rude or dismissive.)

Give the other people a chance to be heard (Don’t be a ‘ball hog’ and do all the talking.)

A bad example is the way discussions are held on cable news or talk shows. They are trying to get people to watch and sell advertising much more than they are trying to help you become better informed.

A good example? A well respected journalist is perhaps is the way it supposed to be done. How does Barbara Walter have a conversation vs Howard Stern? (I’m using these as an example of their style, not their substance.)

(4) Try and understand from their point of view.

Try listening to just the words the other person is using. Repeat back to the person what they just said, and see if you got it right before sharing your opinion. Ask them politely to explain to you again if you did not correctly understand what they are communicating.

Where many people get caught up is they hear what they want to hear. They filter what they hear through their own beliefs. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

For example, I like baseball more than football. Some people think that means I hate football. That’s not what I said — I like football too — but there is an assumption on the meaning.

“You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself.” — Walt Whitman

(5) Be willing to check your facts, and admit when you need more information or need to do more research.

“I don’t know” or “I don’t know enough” is not a bad thing.

Nobody knows everything, and there will be times people know things that you don’t. Stubbornly sticking to incorrect facts and information defeats the purpose of having an Intelligent Conversation.

Having an open mind has got to be one of the hardest things to do. But it can be one of the most rewarding.

This is really hard to do with topics like politics and religion. There may even be topics that have to be off limits, and cannot be discussed.

(6) Separate the emotional from the factual.

There are times you’ll feel a certain way about something just because. That’s OK. Everyone has things they believe that are not rooted in any fact.

There are things you associate very powerful positive or negative feelings with that hugely influence how you feel. Even if the facts contradict how you feel.

Accept your feelings, and accept other people’s feelings. This where you have to exercise self control, as feelings are not likely to change.

(7) Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.

Nobody likes a gloating winner and nobody likes a bitter loser.

If you do persuade others to see things your way, be kind and tread lightly, or you may change their mind back. So no bragging or boasting about how smart you are or how right you are.

If you have changed your mind and now agree with someone else’s point of view, be grateful to have learned something new. It is not a contest to be won or lost.

Thank you for reading my thoughts on having an Intelligent Conversation.

What do you think? Are there any more rules that should be added to this list? Or any removed?

UPDATE 2009-12-29: An excellent post on How To Disagree on Paul Graham’s blog here: http://www.paulgraham.com/disagree.html

Written by Jim Bergman copyright 2008
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