Fixing Fights in Ireland

I had a great time speaking at the offices of The Irish Catholic this past week on tactics for having better fights about religion.  It also wound up being written up for The Irish Times by Breda O’Brien.  The video is now up on iCatholic.ie, plus, I’ve embedded it below:

Often, here on the blog, I talk mostly about tactics for online fights, but, during the talk and the Q&A, more of the focus was on engineering productive conversations between small groups or even pairs of people, rather than the one-to-many (or worse, all against all) approach of the internet.

One tactic I discuss is shifting the context of a debate, to give both of you a better chance of sticking to good practices.  I used this trick when a group of my friends were fighting about the Brendan Eich resignation on facebook.  The posts were showing up fast; everyone was, presumably, on the edge of their seats, fueled by adrenaline, and alone at their various computers.  It’s a hard place to have a charitable, thoughtful debate.

I asked my friends (since they were mostly DC based) if they’d be amenable to pausing the conversation and picking it up in person.  If so, I promised to bake cookies for the ultimate donnybrook.  I wanted to make the conversation happen in person, not in front of an audience, and in a format that let people speak for longer and ask questions more easily.

My friends probably figured that I offered cookies as a bribe to get everyone to change venues, and they were partially right.  But my cookies had another strategic purpose.  When everyone arrived, I was still in the process of taking the cookies out of the oven, so I had to recruit everyone to help me out.

“Alice, can you pour milk for people?”

“Bob, could you pass out napkins?”

“Eve, can you greet people at the door while I’m stuck in the kitchen with potholders on?”

Before we could start arguing, people on both sides of the debate were working on taking care of each other and asking each others’ help.  Then, once the logistics were set, we all broke bread (sorta) with each other and had a shared, pleasurable experience.  Then we laid into each other.

Sharing a communal experience of mutual service didn’t make anyone pull their intellectual punches, but I think it made us more patient with each other and less anxiously fixated on defending ourselves.  Sharing food and seating helped remind us of the relationships we enjoyed with each other, and why we cared about probing the ideas of this particular group of people.

Do folks have other good techniques for making it easier on us to have good disagreements?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."


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