Personal and academic blog. Explores the borderlands between rhetoric, politics and intelligence.


Discussion and conflict resolution

Discussions can save the world. But they can also frustrate you to death.

Having the opportunity to sit in on a very interesting discussion between people of different political views, professions and goals I came to think of the indispensable concept of the dynamic of argumentation. And I came to think if this concept could be used on a bigger political scale, to help shed some light on conflicts between old enemies - and not least help mediators who are to try to get these to find common ground.

Very often when a discussion go wrong it is because people are in fact discussing a subject on very different premises. The ancient rhetorical principle of Topics and Heuristics are a useful tool here.

Topic (from the greek topoi) basically means a "place" - or popularly: places in the shared landscape of opinion. Heuristics are basically lists of places or questions that should be asked. A very well-know heuristic is the journalistic: "What, where, when, how, etc."

Another heuristic can shed light on the dynamic of argumentation.

1. Is it so?
2. What is it?
3. What value does it have?
4. What should be done?

Corresponding to these are four phases of a discussion:

1. The constituting phase - question regarding reality.
2. The defining phase - question about identification
3. The evaluative phase - question about estimation
4. The advocating phase - question about action or policy

Sometimes a discussion will go sour because X is arguing with an inbuilt understanding that the subject is so-and-so, a stance that Y hasn?t even realised and therefore is dragged into a fight because X's arguments seems so preposterous that they have to be refuted before the discussion can get on. But now X just proceeds with an unsolved basis - and might make the discussion even worse.

Enter Z, the mediator, who has to be able to spot that X and Y are discussing on different assumptions. Now Z has the possibility to go back in phases and reach a common constitution or definition of the problem - or she can simply fast forward, find another angle and set the two up discussing the problem from another angle.

A good example of this would be two people from different cultural backgrounds discussion ? say from a democracy and an authoritarian background, as the things they take for granted are wildly different.

Those who are able to read "Praktisk Argumentation" by Charlotte Jørgensen and Merete Onsberg (Teknisk Forlag, København) should really do so as they sketch the above out.


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