A good conversation is like an old friend, a fine wine, and a homecooked meal all rolled into one great big delicious thing (not that you’d eat an old friend with wine and a homecooked meal: friends are not for eating). And while some good conversations can be had between people who see eye-to-eye on everything, strict agreement gets boring.
Person 1: “I love this thing!”
Person 2: “Me too!”
Person 1: “I hate that thing!”
Person 2: “Me too!”
Joy and kinship abound when you find someone who feels the same way you do about this or that whatever. But if all you ever do is smile and nod with a person, you might begin to nod off.
Conversation becomes more interesting – more fun! – when you stop agreeing to disagree, and start agreeing to argue.
But of course, you have to argue properly. Some things to keep in mind:
~ Conversation is not debate club.
This is true even when you are discussing your differing viewpoints on a controversial issue. If you want to debate, form a team, get a moderator, and choose a point system so you can declare a “winner” when your time runs out.
Debate is about performance, about being more informed, better prepared, and better armed with zingers than your opponent.
Conversation is not about winning, about looking or sounding better. Conversation is about listening, about explaining, about an honest attempt to understand a different perspective while also attempting to clearly communicate your own position.
As in a debate, you and your companion might be passionate, might wave your arms – might even employ a few zingers. If one of you is more informed than the other, maybe there will be a sort of “winner.” But conversation is a way to hear and understand people you want to know better. Debate is about deciding who’s King of the Rock. If you want to play that old schoolyard game, by all means – do so. But if you want to engage in great conversation, stop pushing and shoving, shut your mouth, pay attention, and wait your turn.
~ Start small.
If you’re sure you know someone well, it’s probably safe to call his favorite movie a sad waste of human resources or her candidate of choice a moron and enjoy the ensuring verbal fireworks.
However, if you’re not familiar with a person, you will have to do some research/practice a little before deciding whether or not you can have healthy disagreements. Try to find out what he likes and watch how he defends those preferences. Observe how good she is at listening and letting others voice opinions. Try to discuss relatively non-explosive subjects, such as favorite foods or the best vacation spots (unless of course these subjects ARE explosive: maybe you have a friend with a grudge against a particular state or a friend who refuses to hear an ill word against pretzels). If you can disagree civilly there, you might be able to move up the ladder, touching on more sensitive, more controversial subjects. Or, you’ll get your head taken off for mentioning Indiana or admitting you find pretzels dry and tasteless, and you’ll decide it’s best to let well enough alone.
~ Know yourself.
It’d be great if human beings could calmly discuss all of their differences without flying off the handle. Unfortunately, human beings tend to become filled with passion, rage, and spittle – and then there’s weeping and punching and name-calling and it’s all very unpleasant.
You, for better or worse, are a human being, and there are going to be some subjects that push you over the edge, that make make you fly off the handle, that turn you into a red-faced, spittle-throwing, name-calling shadow of your usual open-minded self.
I think, to some extent, this is okay. I imagine even the most enlightened thinkers have some things they keep off the table, some opinions they cannot tolerate – views they will not listen to because they are so offensive or different or whatever else. As a human being, you should figure out what these subjects are for you and either a) teach yourself to talk about them without doing injury to the other person or b) avoid that subject during what’d you’d like to be a productive and peaceable exchange.
~ Feel free to completely disregard everything I’ve said
I think things to argue about (in the context of conversation between people who respect each other) keep human relationships interesting. I think the art of civil disagreement is one of the most important skills a human being can learn. If you don’t know how to respond with, “Hmmm….Tell me more about your perspective,” and keep squawking, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard!” I will worry about you.
My opinions, though, are not the end-all, be-all of human thought. But I promise not to fly off the handle if you try to convince me otherwise.