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Let's discuss discussion. Some people have the idea that discussions are (sometimes/often) long, boring, and unproductive. Not all kinds of discussion. Scientists discussing their work of course can make progress. Discussion of a shared interest that's something fun like a computer game no one minds. But discussion regarding *disagreements* many people consider unpleasant.

People say the three keys to relationships are communication, communication, and communication. We can interpret that as evidence people need reminding and avoid communication. No one seems to take those keys very seriously, especially at first. Like The Rules where you can't call her for 3 days so you don't seem desperate. And people are scared to say how they feel at first rather than eager. Even later people often react to doing something their spouse would not like by *not telling him*. Don't get me wrong. I don't especially blame people for keeping things from their spouse. They are frequently correct that the spouse would react unpleasantly. Though I would recommend that we try to live in a good way, including with open communication -- give it a serious chance -- and if it fails, well what good is a marriage like that? If you have low expectations for your marriage, fine, but I am not impressed by such an attitude.

Anyhow, discussion is important. This is well known. How can you solve problems if you don't explain your preferences to each other? Without understanding where the other is coming from it is very hard to think of a solution that you'd both like. So discussion, while it can't guarantee a good outcome, seems to be a pretty necessary part of a good outcome. So what goes wrong?

One issue is people talk way too long and say lots of irrelevant stuff. This is boring and makes the discussion less effective because the important issues are obscured. I don't think people especially do this on purpose. The largest factor is they don't have much skill at identifying the key points and stating them briefly. But they are not totally innocent. Many people expect to have a long "heart to heart" or something and are not trying to get to the point.

Another issue is people talk incessantly about their feelings. This puts emotional pressure on the other person to acquiesce to any demands. And it's parochial and generally boring. And frequently the feelings being discussed are very irrational. So why listen to them? They don't follow fixed rules so there is no reasonable policy you can use to avoid triggering them. This is generally thought to be especially true of females who are known for being mercurial, and for wanting their boyfriend to support them and sympathize with them whether they are right or wrong. But men do the same sort of thing too, for example they more often get angry, and perceive the target of their anger as having wronged them and the more angry they get, often the more they decide they must have been wronged. And men, as well as women, get sexually jealous easily enough -- perhaps men more so.

What should you do? Well first state the issue and see if you agree about that. "I want to get a dog, but I think you don't." Confirm that! You could have misunderstood, and it helps focus the discussion. Now pause and think for a moment. Don't just start listing all the reasons you want a dog. They might not even be needed. And what good is a big list? You can't be right twice, let alone 10 times. OK so there might be an obvious solution here. Like if you live at different houses and you will take care of the dog then you might only need to say "I won't bring the dog on visits to your house" and that could be that. You're probably thinking I cheated by making the scenario too easy. But seriously stop and think a moment, there are easy solutions sometimes.

OK but say there isn't. You share a house. What now? Well listing the merits of a dog at this point is silly. For all you know you agree about that. You should ask why she doesn't want a dog. Let her say what she thinks would be bad about it. She might be wrong. You might agree with her and change your mind. Or at least you will know which merits of having a dog are actually relevant to her opinions.

So for example now she says that dogs are smelly and hairy. And you say they don't smell if bathed once a week, and that a certain breed doesn't shed much hair and you actually like that breed. There, problem solved. No need to remind her about how you had 3 dogs growing up and really loved them.

Maybe she says she thinks the dog will be neglected and she will have to feed and walk it and she doesn't want to. Well, that would be the time to point out how much you love walking dogs, and to explain why you expect to be reliable about feeding it. See how focussed that is? Still no big list of 500 reasons you want a dog, or 500 feelings you have about dogs. Only relevant things. And really, when you put the problem this way, doesn't it seem pretty simple and easy to evaluate? Yet people really do have fights about getting a pet, and fail to agree and often even fail to have a pleasant conversation about it. If she still thinks you won't be reliable ask her why. She might have a good point. Maybe you aren't reliable! But still there are easy answers. You could borrow a dog and see how you do. Or say her evidence is that you haven't mowed the lawn and bought the groceries on schedule. You could do those well for the next month to dispel her doubts.

There's a secret to why it's been easy so far. Well, there's two main reasons, but one I've been telling you. The one reason is focus: no big lists of irrelevant reasons for things, no wailing about emotions, just stick to very straightforward descriptions of the problem and the major preferences involved. OK the secret, what sets these hypotheticals apart from reality, is not at all that they are chosen to be easy or they are overly simple, or they are unrealistic. It's nothing like that. It is: the people I'm imagining are acting rationally. That makes a huge difference.

Here is what a fight looks like. First she says the dog would smell. When you offer to wash it frequently then she says it'd be too hairy. When you offer to get a breed which is not then she says you'll probably never walk it. When you deal with that issue she says you'll forget to bathe it. After you address that she says she doesn't like the idea of having it around the house all the time. When you explain about building a dog house in the back yard she says if you want a pet so much maybe can we get a cat? And it goes on and on: she changes her story repeatedly. Why is she doing that? Well because she doesn't want a dog, and it isn't for some straightforward reason that she knows of, so she's just guessing what her reason is, but each time you refute a reason she finds she still doesn't want a dog so it must actually be something else so she guesses again. But it isn't any of those things. It's an irrational anti-dog hang up. And so the discussion, when focussed only on a rational exploration of preferences and reasons, goes nowhere, or in circles, or whatever.

By the way you should keep in mind fights are common, but the subject matter varies from couple to couple. As strange as it is to be irrational about dogs, maybe one person in 40 is, which means about one couple in 20 will have the dog thing. But there are many hundreds of things people can be irrational about. So even if the rate for most of them is 2-5% the rate of fighting for each couple is still pretty high. And remember all those things you aren't irrational about are pretty easy and go pretty fast: the fights get a lot more time, attention, and notice.

Also all this stuff applies to friends, parent/child, co-workers, etc, not just couples. A couple is just part of my example.

So, what do we do now? How do we face irrationality?

One thing that helps very much is to limit the irrationality. Having irrational preferences about the dog issue is one thing. But that doesn't mean you have to discuss irrationally. It can be pointed out to you that you are changing reasons and clearly don't know what your real reason is. Or you can notice that yourself. And you can react to this by thinking: hmm, maybe I'm irrational about this. And then you can go back to having a rational discussion about reasons for things but just say your reason is: I seem to have a hang up about dogs. And I don't want to face it. (If you don't mind facing it, then do that, of course. It can be fun to crush memes and irrationalities. Yay human power and spirit.)

So you are irrational. He might say: that's a shame, but I don't want to put you through a hard and potentially painful experience, nor is a dog more important than you having control over what hard things you have to face in your life. And again we're done. Issue resolved. Easily. This can happen.

Another reason people fight is they think life is a zero sum game. Well they might not think all of life is, but they at least think a particular issue is. They think either I get what I want, or you do, or we compromise and boht get part of what we want and part of what we don't want (compromises aren't much fun. and also they are not what anyone thinks is best. (if you thought it was best you'd want it, so you wouldn't regard it as getting only part of what you want.)). That could lead to further problems over the dog. She's irrational? Argh. That means either I can't have what I want (a dog) or she can't have what she wants.

There are still plenty of easy solutions. You might be satisfied with your friend getting a dog and you visiting often and walking it. You might be satisfied with a cow instead, which she might not mind.

But ok, what else is there? Well, one big big thing is you can change your preference. You can decide something else is best and then find you want that. Faking this is no good. Deciding you "should" want something else, when you don't honestly want it, isn't going to turn out well. But genuine changes of opinion can take place. In fact it is common that people change their mind *in general*. It's only rare *in fights*. And partly it seems that way because any time someone does change his mind/preference there is no more fight, so people don't remember it as a fight.

Really, people change their preferences all the time. It's easy. "Let's go to the park tomorrow." "I can't, I promised my grandmother I'd visit her." "OK." See that "OK"? That means he changed his mind about wanting the two of them to go to the park. Easy. "Let's go get icecream." "Nah, I had a big lunch, not hungry." "OK." And now suddenly you don't prefer to go get icecream together. etc

So the real thing people are worried about is: what if we irrationally disagree and we won't change our minds and then we fight? Well the first and most obvious thing is: would you rather change your mind or fight? The second most obvious thing, imo, is that maybe you don't need to agree about this at all. Maybe life can go on without a discussion. I know that isn't much use in the case of the dog for the married couple who share a house. That is one of the downsides of sharing so much of your lives: it puts pressure on you to agree about more things. But if you are just friends then a lot of things you can just say "nevermind" and maybe get what you want with some other friend.

You're probably thinking that if you give in because it's better than fighting that will set a bad precedent and it won't be fun to do that every time. Well first of all you could take turns. Second of all things don't always turn out how you expect. Maybe once you get the dog she will actually like it. Or once you don't have it you will take an interest in something else and forget all about it and not be sad. Third, what is this about a precedent? You are scared your wife, your cherished loved one, will discover that if she refuses to agree she can make you give in even though you'd rather not? Well, suppose she discovers that is possible. She will not want to do that! Right? She better not. If she does what on earth are you doing married? So you shouldn't be scared of that. If you are you have much bigger problems than a dog. Bigger than a cow, even.

But Elliot, I read all this and it's still not working? What can I do? Well, it'd be easier if you were a better person. I'm not insulting you. I'm saying you are capable of improving. It's a compliment, see? Now the point is if you improve in ways that seem to have nothing at all to do with the dog problem you might come back to the dogs and find some of your wisdom actually turns out useful or it just seems easier now. Making progress in other fields often helps out in unforeseeable ways. So clearly if you are really having a hard time you should all take a break to read my blog.

What if we can't gain perspective and treat our irrationality rationally? Well first of all you can. It's possible. You have simply failed to do so, for now. But next, yes that's a common issue. Nasty memes frequently make people believe they are behaving and thinking rationally. And this makes people act willfully blind, misinterpret things, confabulate reasons, and so on. Oh dear! What is to be done?

There is no general answer. General answers only work well for rational problems. Rational problems have patterns and logic to them, so there are often lots of helpful general things. And there is a general approach to rational problem solving that can help. Besides imagine there was a general answer, and it was "Do X." for some X. Well, soon people would be asking, "What if I also have a hang up about X?" So that's not going anywhere fast. What to do depends. THere is a nasty hang up of some sort. Well, what sort? What would make it better? What would get rid of it? Put it in remission? Put it in hiding? There are answers, but they depend on the specific mind of the person in question. Some people would enjoy to go through with things in spite of their hang up. They might be proud to ignore their irrationality and thumb their noses at it. They could find the whole thing fun. But others would hate to do that. They might rather read a lot about the subject and meditate on it and slowly form better views about it more based on facts. Other people don't see what's so wrong about having a hang up -- no one is totally rational -- and don't seriously want to change it, so they aren't going to.

The original topic is having a discussion to solve a problem. I'm going to go back to it now. That could help people who are all caught up worry about their irrationality. Relax. Calm down. Think about the basic steps to discussion and try one of them. They don't hurt.

So, one thing that helps discussions go well is to have a mental model of the other person. This sounds fancy but we all have them at least inexplicitly. If you ever guess what someone would reply if you said something you have a mental model of that person which is helping you to predict what they'd do. Vague mental models usually are full of stereotypes. That's not such a bad thing. Most people are pretty conventional so a lot of stereotypes are *roughly* accurate. It's good to keep in mind they are just stereotypes and you don't know for sure, but they can help and are better than nothing. If you make frequent use of your mental models of each other you can save a lot of talking. You can notice that you already agree about something, or that you think the other person understands a point, and then you don't have to mention it. Or if someone says something with multiple possible meanings (which many many sentences have) then if your mental model is pretty good you might be pretty sure which they meant and can assume that. But keep in mind you made that assumption! If a little later you find you are miscommunicating then you should question if your mental model got that wrong and double check.

Only give one argument at a time. As I said you can't be right twice. You also can't be more right. You are right or you aren't. Just give your best most important reason and discuss that. It's the most likely to settle the issue in either direction. If it's wrong you have the most reason to re-think your position. And it's the most likely to persuade the other person. It's also easier to keep track of things if you focus on one issue at a time and resolve it to your satisfaction.

Another important thing is if something is confusing or unclear or ambiguous then don't be embarrassed not to understand. Communication takes two. Don't feel so bad. Maybe they should have made their statement easier to follow. Or maybe it's something silly like a typo that is causing the confusion. So ask!

If part of this was unclear feel free to email me to ask about it.

Elliot Temple on July 15, 2007


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