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Two interpretations of discussions without results

Published on 2014-04-19 discussion

From my mathematics classes at university, I am familiar with discussions that are havily oriented towards producing results. The situation is as follows: Two people together try to find a solution to a clearly defined problem. When one person has an idea for a solution, a form of role play unfolds: The first person tries to defend their position while the second person tries to refute it. Through this role play, the thesis is intensively tested for its weaknesses and can be quickly discarded if necessary. The players do not represent their actual opinion, but rather slip into roles to facilitate an efficient discussion that actually yields results.

However, the example just given is about very abstract problems with hardly any personal opinions involved. Political discussions are very different. People are much more affected and are therefore less willing to back down from their position once taken. I would like to offer two (not mutually exclusive) interpretations of such discussions. Which interpretation we chose can significantly influence how we evaluate a discussion.

I use a simplified notion of “political discussion” here. I take it to mean a situation in which two people have different opinions and (at least superficially) try to resolve their disagreement. Furthermore, based on my experience I assume that the resolution sought very rarely takes place because the people involved are unwilling to back down from their positions.

The first interpretation states that changing one’s opinion during the discussion is actually not desirable. If a person has actively formed their opinion, it is embedded in a closely interwoven worldview. Thus, the opinion cannot easily be changed without creating obvious inconsistencies. The discussion can at best be an impulse for a longer process.

The second interpretation follows on from the above example: It also assumes that the participants are role-playing. This time, however, the aim is not to be able to discard a false thesis as quickly as possible. Instead, both sides stick to their initial thesis, but hone their arguments on each other. The theses are increasingly sharpened, weak arguments are dropped and gradually a clear line of conflict emerges, the “core conflict”. As with the first interpretation, I assume here that most reflection takes place only after the end of the discussion.

These two interpretations of seemingly inconclusive political discussions indicate that agreement need not be the only goal of a discussion. If individual learning is brought into focus, even inconclusive discussions can be seen as successes.

In addition, the idea of role play can help to separate the personal level from the content level so that a lively discussion does not turn into a personal conflict.