This post explains a way of organizing a discussion. It’s meant to be useful in some cases, not all the time. It doesn’t require that the other person know it’s being used. This method can be collaborative, or can be used as tips to guide your own actions.
The problem: people debate endlessly without anything being resolved.
The method: instead of having many debates, focus on reaching clear conclusions about three issues.
How? Ask the other person what they think is important or interesting. Get them to say something serious about an important issue (or link something they already wrote). Then focus on that. Instead of discussing whatever they carelessly say mid-discussion, try to get something more substantial that you can reply to. (People shouldn’t say careless things in discussions that they wouldn’t take responsibility for … that’s irresponsible … but they do.). Then clearly point out mistakes. Do one issue at a time, three times.
Tips: Focus criticism on key topics, not tangents or cherrypicked errors. Preferably, the criticisms to will point out important problems, not “this is incomplete” or “this is sloppy” (that doesn’t mean ignoring incompleteness or sloppiness, it means trying to get them to provide material which is more complete and effortful so that you have something good to respond to). If they can’t produce anything good (in your opinion), get them to say they think something they wrote is good (in their opinion), then point out that it’s incomplete or sloppy. That means they’re a poor judge of quality (which is an important criticism, but that should be your backup plan only if you can’t get them to say anything decent about a primary topic of interest like dinosaurs, history, politics, physics, etc.).
People make lots of excuses about their errors. They don’t want to figure out what caused their error (often a bad thinking method or static meme) and what other errors that cause could cause (often lots) and then fix the underlying problem. Focusing on three high quality critical interactions can reduce excuses. Pick things where they’d have few excuses for being wrong.
Does this method assume you’ll be doing all the criticizing, and unfairly have them stick their neck out while you don’t? That depends. People are welcome to criticize any of my important pieces of writing. Their criticism can be two of the three issues discussed, but shouldn’t be all three. If you want to use this method but have no public writing available for anyone to criticize, that’s a problem.
The second problem: People want answers to their questions, and corrections of their errors, one by one. What they should be doing is learning how to think better for themselves – learn better thinking methods, critical thinking skills and philosophy – so that they can answer more of their own questions and correct more of their own errors. Often, people want to ask a bunch of questions while not saying anything substantial themselves, so they minimize the ideas they expose to criticism.
It’s inefficient to outsource your thinking to me or to another wise person. I don’t have time to answer all your questions. I’ll answer a few if I like them, and to see if you learn much, and because people are interesting, and to interest people in learning my thinking methods (by giving examples of my wisdom). But most of your questions have to be answered by creating your own thinking and research skills, not by using mine. It’s the difference between teaching a man to fish and doing the fishing for him then giving him fish. Answering a question is giving someone a fish.
The solution: People should take an interest in learning to be better thinkers so they make fewer errors and can effectively find or create good ideas. I’ve written (and talked) a lot about how to do this and I’m open to questions about it.
Part of what learning involves is changing one’s mindset. It’s one thing to be a peer or equal, who is contributing about as many fish as he receives. It’s another to be unable to fish. (Or maybe you can only catch small fish, but you ask questions and make claims about big fish and are talking to people who know how to catch big fish. Big fish are complicated ideas.) You need to know which situation you’re in and act accordingly. Should you focus on learning more (to catch up to existing knowledge), or should you pursue your directly projects (with critical discussions and learning being secondary)?
The third problem: People view themselves as peers when they should be learners. And they don’t want to change that. They think they already are educated, good thinkers who can catch their own fish. They view their questions (areas of ignorance) and errors as occasional things, not a major pattern.
The solution: Show them their errors using three clear examples. Show them their ability to deal with ideas is less effective than they think it is, or less effective than it could be if they had the thinking skill that you do. Show them that you catch substantially bigger fish than they can, which is a skill they should learn if they want to successfully contribute anything important to human knowledge (or want to fight with their family less, or otherwise have a better life).
The three discussions method serves multiple purposes. It helps clarify the outcomes of discussions, and it helps limit how many different discussions happen before the patterns in the discussions are addressed, and it helps clarify the relative skill and knowledge of the participants, and it helps show people why they should try to learn to think better (because, three out of three times, they missed errors in their ideas – the type of errors that make the difference between success and failure).
The three discussions method can also show when something else is going on. Maybe the other guy will be right on some of the issues. Maybe there won’t be a pattern of error. Maybe he is wise, too. Maybe he can contribute a fair amount. That’s possible. Maybe you’re roughly equals. Maybe he knows far more than you, and you should be trying to learn from him. The three discussions method helps find out what the situation in a time-and-effort-efficient way.
Link: my discussion forums.
The first comment, below, is a second article on this topic with more info.