Rules for Conversations and Disputes

Some more high-powered advice from Watts. These come from scattered chapters in The Improvement of the Mind summarized and edited into this list.

  1. Talk with people wiser than yourself.
  2. Ask people about their specific area of expertise.
  3. Listen carefully before you answer an issue.
  4. Do not lose control in fear or anger at opinions that are different from your own.
  5. Be certain you understand the question being asked.
  6. Learn from people below yourself.
  7. When someone else is speaking, do not allow yourself to be occupied forming an answer, but listen patiently and respectfully as you want him to do to you.
  8. Ask questions in conversation when others say something that is unclear.
  9. Agree with a person as much as you can before disagreeing. Look for unity as it is often there at least in some point.
  10. Allow people to finish talking.
  11. Be careful about being too confident.
  12. Be careful about believing everything confident people say.
  13. Control your emotions so you are easy to talk to, and don’t be afraid of the words, “I was wrong.”
  14. Judge yourself harshly; judge others easily. All humans will misspeak, use weak logic, and have prejudices, so expect yourself to be the problem until good evidence shows you are not.
  15. Throw away forever all insulting, angering words. Never mock someone who’s arguments have failed, or cheer yourself when you prove your point. Command your tongue to silence in these cases. (See clarification below)
  16. Avoid talking with people who cannot stay on the subject, or are always being offended. Guard against these characteristics in your own speech.
  17. When others break these rules, learn from their folly. If others laugh when someone is a fool, know that you will be laughed at when you are a fool, and let that motivate you.
  18. If there is a point of disagreement, make sure that it is clearly defined. How far do you agree? On what exactly do you disagree?
  19. When attempting to solve a dispute do not allow the point to be changed.
  20. Always be ready to change your opinion if better evidence is given. And be happy about this, because you are the winner if you lose a falsehood and gain truth.
  21. When you disagree, order your ideas to slowly contradict another person rather than to openly and immediately contradict him.
  22. Use questions to guide the conversation in a profitable direction as well as draw out wisdom from those who are learned. A wise man can also help a man to instruct himself so that he receives the knowledge more readily.
  • Number 15 is Watts’ rule, but it is wrong if it is interpreted as an absolute rule, as if being angry or mocking are always wrong. Rather we should be righteously angry and we should mock what God mocks. Sometimes speaking the truth will be insulting to people. At those times it is a virtue to be angry, to mock, or to insult. But this is a good rule if it is interpreted to mean: Do not lose control. Do not mock people as a substitute for communicating truth or thinking clearly or dealing with the issue. Under most circumstances, shouting at people is the wrong tactic.
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