Monday, January 9, 2017

Books to Make Discussion Easier

For a variety of reasons, I’ve recently found myself in quite a few conversations about social and political issues, both in person, and on Facebook and other social media. Even when I was engaging with someone with a different view that I had, I learned a lot, both about my views and contrary ones . Other conversations were more frustrating. The difference between the enjoyable ones and the frustrating ones seemed to be that the arguments I heard didn’t always seem to be either relevant or logical. Rather than (always) walk away I took these challenging conversations as an opportunity to practice focusing on understanding, rather than (only) and opportunity to win. (Though sometimes walking away is the best thing...)

I found these books, which I’ve recently read, to be a useful part of a toolkit for more productive arguments about controversial subjects:

Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff is the most partisan of the books. It is upfront as being about being a “guide for Progressives,” though it also explains the concept of “framing,” and the role it plays in how people interpret information.

As an engineer I tend to think that the best way to argue point is with facts and data. This doesn’t aways work, especially in political discussions, even when the data are clear, quantifiable, and not disputed by reasonable people, because the words are sometimes framed in a way that re-enforces another view point. Don’t think of an Elephant explains how framing works from the perspective of linguistics and cognitive science and the importance of framing in discussion and debate. Lakoff emphasizes that this book is more action oriented than academic, and he points to more scholarly works on the topic for those who are interested.

While the book is about political advocacy, and geared at Progressives, it can be useful for a number of audiences. For Progressives, you can better understand how to frame your arguments when trying to influence others. The book also has a discussion of what the Conservative mindset is, and awareness of the perspective of someone who thinks differently that you can help bridge gaps. Conservatives who are interested in having better conversations with their more progressive friends and associates might also get some insights from the book.

The book heavy emphasizes political discourse, but the concept of frames and framing is something you can apply to communicating your perspective in various contexts.

Partisan as the book, is, it can also be useful for bridging gaps. This book might provide a guide for Progressives to make their points in a more effective, less reactive way, and to have more productive conversations with their Conservative friends.

Mastering Logical Fallacies by Michael Withey is a bit less political, and more generic, but still relevant to political conversations. I got a copy of this book for my 10 year old so that he’d be exposed to the idea of good arguments early. Then I decided that I needed to read it myself, in part as a reaction to having been in far more conversations around recent political events where some of the arguments made no sense to me. The book helped me understand how to recognize and address those kinds of arguments. It also has helped me to take a step back in discussions in other domains, including technical discussions at work.

Having a framework for understanding these kinds of fallacies can help you to put a conversation in context, and be able to (more) calmly address the issues people are raising, rather than react emotionally and perhaps commit the same kind of fallacies yourself.

While I can’t speak fully to the thoroughness of the discussion of the fallacies (maybe if I had either taken the forensics class in High School, or considered the Debate Team!) I found this to be a really good bit of background. My one complaint is that some of the examples are a bit forced, but the author still makes his point most of the time.

I still plan to share the material with my 10 year old so that he can learn how to have good discussions -- something it’s never too early to learn! This book is a tool that can help you navigate conversations (especially political ones) be they on Facebook or in person.

While the first two books are more tactical, in that they provide guidelines for how to deal with specific conversational situations, [_Humble Inquiry_] by Edgar Schein is more about mindset.

This is a short, pragmatic, easy to read, book that can help you be better at something both essential and often neglected: How to work together better. By chance I first opened the book to a page with the heading “The Main Problem: valuing tasks over relationships” and I knew that I made the right choice when I got the book. Teamwork is essential and building an environment where people trust each other enough to work as a team is hard.

This book explores a technique that can help to work across cultural, organizational and hierarchical boundaries. With theory, examples, and practices to try, it becomes easy to understand what Humble Inquiry is. The practice will take work.

Humble Inquiry is as much a mindset as a technique, since, as Shein points out, it is hard to be authentic when simply “acting humble” and people will notice, and you will thus erode rather than build trust.

Any leader, team member, spouse, or even parent can learn valuable things from reading this book. I would even argue that if you interact with anyone there are lessons you can learn, or at least have reenforced. This book is a small investment in both time and money for a large reward.

There are certainly any more books that cover this space, but these three seemed to cover a range that might help be weather the more difficult conversations.

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