Have strong opinions, weakly held.

– Paul Saffo

I want to talk about one of those obvious-in-retrospect distinctions that I find very helpful: the distinction between collaborative and combative discussions.12

I can’t point to any really clear distinguishing features between collaborative and a combative discussions, so in true 18th Century philosopher style, if I can’t define the difference I’ll just list a whole bunch of things that I associate with one or the other.

Features of a collaborative discussion:

  • Participants change their minds readily in response to either others’ arguments or their own.
  • Developments of other people’s arguments are usually welcomed.
  • Participants offer genuine arguments against their “own” positions.
  • Lack of ego-related language.
  • Willingness to put forward half-baked or partial ideas for communal development.
  • Feels like sitting down together to work out what the answer is.

Features of a combative discussion:

  • Participants rarely change their minds.
    • Actually doing so has a faint air of cheating.
  • Arguments are soldiers.
  • Developments of other people’s arguments are only offered if it appears to undermine their position.
  • Frequent reference to or emphasis on “ownership” of positions.
  • Little tolerance for undeveloped ideas or arguments.
  • Snide or passive-aggressive comments.
  • Can get personal.
  • Feels like a fight.

Lots of behaviours can push things in either direction. The prevailing character of the discussion affects the tone, and so affects the implicature of what you say. Telling someone that they made a “terrible argument” can be fine in a robust3 collaborative discussion, because you’ve already established that you’re working together. On the other hand, in the context of a combative discussion, it sounds like an attack (and the chances are you would only say it if you meant it as an attack!4).

How to start a flame war

Once you’ve picked up on the collaborative/combative distinction, you see it everywhere. I feel very fortunate that while studying philosophy I almost universally had tutors with whom I was able to have wonderful collaborative discussions. Some of them were pretty fiery, but I never felt attacked. On the other hand, I know people who had much less pleasant experiences, and often they spoke of feeling uncomfortable with the combative nature of their tutorials. There’s no better way to put someone off a subject by constantly forcing them into unpleasantly confrontational situations.

I’m also lucky enough that quite a lot of people I hang out with (particularly in EA circles) have a taste for robust collaborative discussion (funnily enough, many of them also did philosophy at Oxford…). If anything though, I think some people in the EA movement can be too robust. I know that a conversation that begins “So why do you believe X?” (implicature: ““I think X is wrong”) is going to be collaborative, but I can’t blame newcomers for being scared off.

Software programmers are no strangers to debate either. Criticism is even harder to stomach when you have some work invested in a position, whether that be a whole load of code or your philosophy essay. A lot has been written about how to have healthy technical discussions, and it’s just as applicable elsewhere. The Ten Commandments of Egoless Progamming could practically have been written as tips for avoiding combative discussion.

Programmers often face an extra hurdle that my philosophy tutors didn’t: It’s particularly hard to keep up a collaborative discussion in text. People tend to write in a more confident style than they speak: it’s even considered good style to avoid qualifying words. Speech also allows for a lot of non-verbal cues that can help set tone and convey how certain we are about things, none of which is present in text. “I think X because of Y” might be said differently: “So, um, I think X is probably true - I have a few reasons I’m moderately confident of, but Y is probably the strongest”.

In an in-person conversation, you’re also unlikely to say as much before you get a response. If I write a three-page screed defending X, and Fred’s first point in response convinces me to abandon X; then I wasted my time writing the screed, and Fred wasted his time reading and responding to the whole thing! That can be pretty frustrating all round.

I think that the weaknesses of text communication is partly why the internet tends to foster bad discussion. Invariably the original author ends up nailed to their position, unwilling or unable to back down, and with a massive tailback of assertive commentators slavering for battle.

Avoiding combative discussions

If you haven’t picked it up by now, I think collaborative discussions are superior in every way to combative discussions:

  • They’re better at getting at the truth, since the participants are focussed on the actual problem, rather than winning.
  • They’re more inclusive for people who know less, or are less confident.
  • They’re more fun! Combative discussions can be really stressful, whereas in a good collaborative discussion you all get further than you would have alone.

So how can we avoid having combative discussions? As an inveterate collaborator who hates combative discussion, I find it helpful to be able to identify why I feel uncomfortable in a discussion, but it would be even better to figure out how to avoid getting into them in the first place. I have a few general heuristics:

  • Argue strongly, but be ready to turn on a dime.
    • “Strong opinions, weakly held”.
  • Some behaviours can lean towards either kind of discussion, so try to avoid using them before the overall tone has settled.
    • It’s fine to directly tell someone that they’re wrong, but maybe don’t make that the first thing you say.
  • Try to avoid identifying too much with your arguments.
    • This can be hard if it’s something that matters a lot to you. For example, it is possible to have a collaborative discussion about the truth of someone’s religious beliefs, but you have to be pretty careful!
    • Similarly, if it would be a status hit for your interlocutor to accept your arguments, you may be out of luck.
  • Try not to react in kind to any combative moves.
    • It’s easy to become defensive in response to a snide comment, but that just cements the tone. If you can, try and continue making collaborative overtures in the hope that they pick it up eventually.
  • Be charitable, kind and respectful to your interlocutors.
    • They’re your colleagues, and their arguments might also be your arguments.

There is, of course, general overlap with “don’t be an asshole”.

This works pretty well for me: I would say that >90% of the discussions I have feel collaborative. But it can be lopsided between the parties. Some people feel under assault if they face any kind of criticism whatsoever, and some people just want to have an argument. It can be pretty hard to have a collaborative discussion with people like that, which is a shame.

Alas, I doubt I’ll be able to get away with just flyering people with this blog post before we talk, but one can dream.

  1. I owe this to a sadly unpublished talk by Amanda MacAskill. 

  2. To be clear, I’m talking about discussions over matters of fact here. I doubt this is a useful distinction for discussions about the football! 

  3. Where “robust” means “not pulling any punches, but not aggressive”. 

  4. The intricacy of human use of implicature is amazing. Sometimes I know that in the current context, if I say X it would be interpreted as Y, and so I won’t say X unless I actually mean Y, even if I would otherwise be inclined to say X. And people wonder what we need such large brains for!