Against the Urge to Win

There was a time – when I was younger and had more free time – when I argued with people on the internet. A post or article or comment would touch a nerve and I would spend hours or days in an unproductive back-and-forth with friends, family members, and complete strangers.

Then, eventually, I stopped doing that. Things still touch a nerve, but more often than not I pause and think about whether that particular thing is worth spending time on. Sometimes it is, and I respond. Most of the time, though, it isn’t. I know that I won’t change the other person’s mind; I know they won’t change mine. And there’s no reason to start a conversation that isn’t going to end in a better relationship… and that will probably end in a worse one.

And I was wondering why it is that so many of conversations are so unfulfilling. Why is it difficult – for me as much as anyone – to have civil and transformative conversations… especially in online forums?

Here’s my sketch of a theory. In big conversations – conversations about important, complex topics – there are three things we want to be able to do: listen to other positions, articulate our own positions, and make a compelling case for our own positions.

Sometimes, we can do all of these things in a positive loop. We can listen to another person’s ideas and learn from them. We can articulate our own positions accurately. We can put forth a strong case for our positions and point out flaws in other positions. Then, we can repeat the loop, listening to another person’s critique of our positions and incorporating that critique into our own thinking.

In other words, we can revise and rework our own thinking in ways that make our positions stronger.

But in far too many conversations – especially when we’re able to publish instantly and passions flare – we focus on winning the debate over understanding what other people are saying or clearly articulating our own positions.

We start ascribing to others positions that they don’t actually hold, because they’re easier to argue against.

We start ascribing to ourselves positions that we don’t actually hold, because they’re easier to defend.

And, in the end, no one is convinced. No one changes.

So let’s suppress the urge to debate. Instead, let’s listen carefully to what others are saying and help them strengthen those arguments. Let’s carefully articulate what we believe and pay attention to criticism. Instead of trying to win, let’s try to understand together.