Feb 15, 2020

Why discussions escalate — and how it might be prevented in some cases

The Problem

Experience shows that discussions (either face-to-face in real time or asynchronously via digital media) tend to fail partly or completely. Written digital discussions seem even more prone. But why is this? Recently I had some interesting talks from which I draw the following explanation:

  • Opinions and preferences vary between individuals.
  • Arguments are exchanged to convince the other side.
  • There is a mental hurdle to admit (to oneself and even more to others) false premises or errors in thinking on behalf of one self.
  • Reason: Admitting own wrongness would impair self-efficacy and thus indirectly self-confidence — which is a unpleasant process.
  • The brain tries to circumvent this by adapting its perceptions such that they fit with its established beliefs (minimizing mental dissonances; Btw: this also causes the confirmation bias).
  • Opinions and perspectives conflicting with ones own hence must be wrong and their advocates incompetent ond malicious.
  • More or less offensive statements enter the discussion addressing the personal level.
  • The other side also wants to maintain or extend their self-confidence and is likely to react similarly offensive.
  • If neither side actively deescalates, there is a positive feedback loop which is well known for its destructive behavior.

An Approach for a Solution

To prevent or at least reduce the effects of dysfunction and susceptibility to escalation, I suggest that every participant in a discussion actively acknowledges the following thoughts:

  • "The err is human. No human being is omniscient or infallible. Not even I by myself."
  • "It might be difficult to discover the objective truth of the discussed question. My initial belief is not guaranteed to complete nor correct."
  • "My main goal in the discussion is not to be proved right in the end, but instead that the group as a whole comes closer to the objective truth. I will assume that all other participants have the same goal."
  • "If I disagree with some statements, I am totally aware that the fault might be on my side."
  • "I will address other people with respect, especially if we disagree. I focus my criticism on the factual level, not on the personal level."
  • "I will explain my reason in a comprehensible way. I am aware of the poor persuasiveness of an unsubstantiated claim and will hence cite external references where necessary and possible."
  • "I am aware of the likelihood of misunderstandings and I will actively try to avoid such."
  • "If I feel treated unfair, I will react defensively and relaxed. I might friendly point to theses rules."
  • "I will not lie. If I said something wrong, I will correct myself. If I am unsure or if I use a simplification I will point that out."

Groups and mailing lists could formally adopt these (or similar) rules and regularly bring them up to raise awareness. I assume that this additional effort will be pretty much overcompensated by more productive discussions. Probably a good time to bring that up is right after an frustrating discussion. Such rules could also be the basis of moderation activities.

Final Thoughts

I am not naive enough to expect that conflicts between humans vanished if everyone would just communicate modestly and in awareness of one's own fallibility. But nevertheless I have the impression that communication issues are the source of many unnecessary conflicts, especially within groups which share common values and common goals. And humankind has by far more important things to do than to deal with unnecessary conflicts.

IMHO dysfunctional discussions also have a technical dimension. This is why I also work on tools constructive discussions. Needless to say: I welcome any feedback.