Clarifying the Question

In this section we’re going to discuss how people come to argue past each other. We’re going to look at how to specify a question and break it down into its component parts.

Before continuing, please complete both exercises.

Exercise-Clarifying the Question

The Problem: Talking Past Each Other

Have you ever been in an argument where you realized half-way through you were actually arguing about two completely different things?

This happens because:

  • People didn’t specify exactly what it was they were arguing over
  • They specified what it was they were arguing over but did not define the parts of that question.

Some things I hope you noticed from your first activity:

  • Any topic has many dimensions to it. You might want to argue about one of them while another person cares about a different aspect.
  • Each dimension could be argued over. So if you try to cover an entire topic, chances are you will get overwhelmed and won’t get very far.

Some things I hope you noticed from your second activity:

  • Key terms are important: Did you notice that certain key words in your questions have whole questions in them? For example, when I ask “should we watch Thor or Avengers?”, the word “should” hides the question “how do we choose between movies?”
  • People break down questions differently: So if you and someone have different answers, you should first check if you are asking the same question.
  • Sometimes people disagree about a big question because they disagree about a much smaller question: It’s easier to argue about a smaller question than a bigger question, so focus on what you really disagree about.

The Solution: Clarify the Question

Before you start taking a position, make sure you understand the question and its parts. From the beginning say things like:

  • I just want to make sure I understand we’re here to discuss X.
  • You seem upset about X. Is that what you’re upset about?
  • The way I see it, this decision turns on the following question. Do we agree that’s the question or do you think we need to figure something else out?

Once you’ve identified the main question, start thinking about what questions need to be answered in order to answer that one. Each sub-question is a potential point of divergence between you and those you are arguing with.

Some Questions to Think About

  • People get into arguments without even realizing it sometimes. What are some strategies you could use to slow things down and focus on the question before you dive in?

Go to Section 4: Articulating a Precise View.