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Question-Ignoring Discussion Pattern

There's a common discussion pattern I've been trying to identify and understand. Example:

Me: What do you think about X?

Them: [silence]

Me: Why didn't you discuss X?

Them: [Starts saying their opinion about X.]

It happens with all kinds of meta discussion, not just asking why they didn't discuss. If you talk about how they were discussing badly, they often ignore you to discuss more. If you ask why they think the topic is unimportant (or whether they think it's important or not, and why), they often ignore that and start discussing it more.

The pattern seems to be they avoid bigger questions and bigger issues, like why they do things. They respond about smaller, more limited issues.

The major indicator of the pattern is they don't directly reply to the last thing you said. You just asked them a question and they start saying something else that is not an answer to the question. That's what stood out to me. They often seem to go back one step. We were talking about X. Then something went wrong, or they stopped talking, or a tangent came up. Then I ask a question about the new issue (the problem, the silence, or the tangent). Then they ignore the question but go back to the previous thing (stop being silent, drop the tangent). If the new issue was a problem, they often silently take one step to try to solve it – they will make a change to try to address the problem, but won't say that they did it, or discuss whether it'll work, they just do it. Often the supposedly problem-solving change is either counter-productive or irrelevant, and it's a burden for them, and they blame me for it (they think of themselves as doing it for me, because I wanted it). But all I'd said is what the problem is, not what I would regard as a solution or what I wanted – they just assumed that while refusing to talk about it.

The discussion issue is partly because people reinterpret questions as demands or assertions. They hear "Why didn't you discuss X?" as meaning "You should discuss X". They hear, "Why are you uninterested in X?" as meaning "X is interesting". They hear, "Do you want to discuss more, or not? You're sending mixed signals." as meaning "I demand you discuss more." They hear "Would it be OK with you if I shared more ideas about X?" as "Let's discuss X more."

I've been trying to understand this pattern and why people do it. I think it's related to people avoiding meta discussion, which I also don't understand very well. What is it about meta discussion that they don't like? My best guess is basically that they avoid talking about more important things in favor of less important ones, which fits their overall life pattern of not having productive discussions and learning philosophy.

I think it's kind of like getting a chore done by procrastinating on an even more unwanted task. They will have regular discussion to avoid discussion that involves "Why?" questions or other important things they find hard. They would feel bad about ignoring something like, "Why don't you want to discuss X? Do you have a reason X is unimportant?" They wouldn't feel justified in ignoring that and still believing themselves to be a rational person who discusses ideas. But if they start discussing X more (breaking their silence, doing one unstated action to try to solve the problem that was disrupting discussion, or dropping a tangent) then they feel legitimized to ignore the question.

One of the straightforward reasons I dislike it is because I don't want to ignore major signs they don't want to talk about X. I don't want to talk about X with a person who doesn't want to discuss X. I don't want to discuss with someone who isn't interested. I don't want to ignore problems like that and go back to the original discussion. Plus, the problems typically reoccur quickly so the discussion doesn't work out.

In general, problems are inevitable and no discussion can work out well, in the long run, without problem solving effort by the participants. But the pattern is people ignore things I say related to problem solving and just go back to the discussion.


Elliot Temple on July 28, 2018

Comments (5)

People do it *even more* when you haven't asked a direct question.

People know rhetorical questions exist, but are bad at figuring out which questions are rhetorical or not.

People aren't very literal or precise in general.

Lots of people phrase their demands and judgments as questions. It's a social tactic. People face this a lot as kids who have cope with authorities like parents and teachers. Kids learn to be sensitive to what the authority wants but hasn't said. Kids often learn to treat questions as orders because they sometimes get punished when they don't.


curi at 12:46 PM on July 28, 2018 | #10480 | reply | quote

> The pattern seems to be they avoid bigger questions and bigger issues, like why they do things. They respond about smaller, more limited issues.

Even when I recognize that someone wants to discuss why I didn't discuss something I often don't know what to say. I don't always have much understanding of why I do or don't do things.


Anne B at 3:38 PM on July 28, 2018 | #10481 | reply | quote

> It happens with all kinds of meta discussion, not just asking why they didn't discuss. If you talk about how they were discussing badly, they often ignore you to discuss more. If you ask why they think the topic is unimportant (or whether they think it's important or not, and why), they often ignore that and start discussing it more.

One of the FI list discussion guidelines is:

> Limit meta discussion (discussion about the discussion), especially in adversarial contexts. That means limiting statements about other posters, yourself, the group itself, how specific individuals should discuss, and so on. The group's purpose is to discuss ideas, not people or discussions.

Is this still a discussion guideline you want?

The discussion guidelines are at: http://fallibleideas.com/discussion/guidelines


Anne B at 3:45 PM on July 28, 2018 | #10482 | reply | quote

There are various types of discussion which suck, like:

- discussing how much authority/expertise/credentials a poster has, as a proxy for discussing his claim

- flaming

- calling someone biased, instead of addressing their arguments, as a method to claim their conclusion is wrong

Also, in general, people should only be discussed if they want to be discussed. Note: people who don't want to be discussed should *say so*, rather than expect others to read their minds.


curi at 3:54 PM on July 28, 2018 | #10483 | reply | quote

Another common one is:

Q: Are you going to reply about X?

A: [ignores question, feels pressured to reply about X, maybe starts replying]

Often, I don't care that much if someone is going to reply or not, I just want to know so I can act accordingly. It comes up e.g. if I asked for their thoughts on a draft before I send it. If they aren't going to reply, I'll send it now. If they are going to reply, I'll wait. It's fine if they don't reply, I just want to know.


curi at 5:43 PM on July 28, 2018 | #10485 | reply | quote

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)