Jim Taylor

Taylor: Guidelines for discussions

Jim Taylor says don’t rely on external authorities in conversations with others

I enjoy good discussions. On almost any topic.

My aging body no longer permits some other activities, but I haven’t lost my ability to take part in a lively discussion. Yet.

Along the way, though, I’ve learned that there are many ways of destroying a discussion, which range from saying too much to not saying anything.

In my experience, the most pernicious fault is to drag in an external authority. Perhaps relying on the insights of a famous writer.

A quotation from a scientist. A definition from a dictionary. A theory from a theologian.

Or, in some circles, citing selected verses from a scriptural text.

Whatever the source, the intent is clear – the authority will squelch lesser opinions. Because, obviously, the authority knows more than any individual in the group.

Reliance on external authorities poses two problems.

First, the only way to refute one authority is to invoke an alternate authority. The discussion then devolves into a game of “My authority can beat up your authority…”

Second, it denies those authorities themselves the right to learn and change. They wrote out of a particular time and situation.

If they were writing today, would they still write the same thing? Would they use the same analogies? The same reasoning?

If they were radical enough to develop new understandings back then, might they not also have new ideas today?

A few years ago, frustrated by a participant who could always – always! – produce a Bible verse as the final word on any subject, I developed some simple guidelines to facilitate more open discussion.

I insisted that everyone accept these guidelines if we were to continue. I’ve long ago lost the original printout, but here’s the gist:

1. Speak from your own experience. (“Experience” is not necessarily something happening. It could include the experience of learning something, whether in a formal class or by individual research; your reactions to what you read or heard become part of your experience.)

2. Everyone’s experience is valid. Even not having had a similar experience is a valid experience.

3. No one’s experience is ever wrong. That’s how they experienced it; that’s the way it is for them.

4. It’s legitimate to ask questions about someone’s experience – for clarity, or to seek common links with your own experience. It’s also legitimate to summarize, in your own words, what you hear someone else saying.

But you may not challenge or dispute the experience itself. You may offer alternate interpretations, but you may not insist that your interpretation is more correct than theirs.

5. Listen first. Later, think about how to respond.

6. Refer to other sources (such as biblical stories or reference texts) only as parallels to your own experience. Draw on others to illustrate your own thoughts, not as a substitute for them.

7. Accept that anyone may tell you, at any time, that you have said enough.

I first introduced those guidelines in a formal study session. I was surprised by how much they improved the quality of discussion.

I’ve never had to impose them since then.

Simply encouraging people to speak out of their own experience has usually sufficed.

Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.


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