If you spend enough time reading articles and blog posts on the Internet, or just have enough Facebook friends, it’s inevitable that somebody will say something that ruffles your feathers. Even those of us who aren’t normally argumentative in face-to-face settings will take a few minutes to type up a reply to something that bothers us. Or maybe you’ve posted something online that you thought was completely innocuous, only to see it blow up into a massive argument between friends of yours who don’t even know each other.
Debates on Facebook or blog comment sections don’t usually feature the strongest argumentation. It’s often just a bunch of people talking past each other, with no real debate occurring. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It really isn’t that difficult to have a rational discussion. You’ve just got to start with the basics.
The first step should always be to define the issue. Ask yourself, “What topic is this person’s argument addressing?” This question actually goes deeper than their argument itself – it’s the unstated question that their argument is trying to answer. To make sure you’ve identified the issue, try framing it as a question. “Gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry” is an argument; “Should gay people be allowed to marry?” is an issue.
Seems simplistic? It is. But people ignore it all the time. If you can’t identify the issue, then you can’t understand someone’s argument or offer a rebuttal. You can’t even formulate our own thoughts properly. Not understanding the issue often leads us off on tangents where we attack a minor point or detail and miss the bigger picture of what someone is try to say. When we miss the issue completely and bring up a different, unrelated argument, we “hijack” the discussion by creating a new issue of our own.
The best way to make sure you understand the issue is to ask. Before you reply to someone, clarify the issue first. Ask, “What are you saying?” or “What’s your point here?” Simply getting on the same page is going to make your own response more effective and make the discussion more fruitful. If you want to talk with people, not just at them, make sure you know the issue.