Arguing Online – An Exercise in Empathy and Human Understanding

We’ve started a new practice at our company wherein managers are given a link to a commonly debated topic and monitored to argue online.

This was to test their own ideas or arguments against other people’s arguments or ideas. In my personal experience undergoing this exercise, I have learnt a lot by simply discussing and debating with other people. To me, they are a source of knowledge and information as precious as books or academic articles and I hope that they can also gain something useful from debating with me. I think if the people I’m arguing with and I are all on comfortable grounds, it goes pretty well. We exchange arguments, often in a very lively but cheerful way, without getting into a fight. We all accept that the other parts might not share our opinions or worldview, but are also willing to confront them to theirs without taking contradiction as an attack on our ego or status.

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On the Internet, however, it often degenerates into fights because people usually comes on a discussion thread with certainties and convictions they are so sure are as solid as rock that they get very angry when they realize that their ideas aren’t holding as well as they thought they would in a contradictory discussion. Then, I guess, if one isn’t face to face and if one doesn’t know well the person at the other end of the line, one might not be able to take into account the person’s sensitivity as well as in face to face interaction with friends or relatives.

Very often then, the “debaters” will start thinking that the other is malevolent and has to be shut down in a way or another. At this point, people stop listening to one another (or reading one another if they are on an online forum) and start fighting on the basis of what they think their opponent’s true hidden intentions are, trying to force them to admit to them. They ignore the other’s arguments or pick the arguments or piece of an argument they are most comfortable refuting, trying to force the other to follow them where they are stronger. Of course, anyone sees through this kind of tactics and evades it, meaning that discussions will go in zigzag, as the two are trying to force the other to follow them onto different area of the subject or even change the subject of the controversy. It becomes a zero-sum game, because no one wins and everyone looses; a lot of energy and the potential gains are buried under tons of frustrations and resentment.

I would like to continue to exchange arguments with people with whom I might not share the same opinion or worldview, but in a way that both of us can gain something from the arguing. And I’ve been finding it very frustrating that so often, debates degenerates into fights and pointless arguing. But its good to learn what prompts the negative side of an argument so I can avoid said topics & phrases offline and apply tactics used to gain a positive response from participants.

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