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Fostering Conversations that Count: Why Discussion? (Updated)

April 13th, 2007 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Why are we doing this?

As someone who led discussions with high school students on a regular basis, I would often hear their frustrations with the discussions we would have. "We don't get anywhere. It just feels circular. The other people aren't saying anything interesting." Etc, etc, etc.

As a discussion leader, it is crucial to have a litany of reasons in your back pocket to inspire, motivate and encourage those in your group to pursue understanding.

To that end, here are some possible reasons for adopting discussion:

Training for real life: The way people interact in discussion is the way they interact in the rest of their lives. People who don't listen, who get bored easily, who are easily frustrated, who have to always have their own opinion heard will tend to exemplify those characteristics outside of the discussion context. As such, discussion can be an intense learning experience for individuals. As much of this series will address developing virtues in and through discussion, I won't address them beyond saying that discussion can and will sanctify us.

Builds genuine community: most people are hungry for authentic relationships. They want a sense that other people are concerned for them, and they want to be invested in a mission and body that is larger than themselves. Discussion can foster this sense in people, as it brings out personalities and forces people to interact with each other. While it is sometimes ugly--after all, conflict happens--discussion can help bring people together and get them working together.

Forms quick thinking skills: the advantage of something like blogging is that I get to formulate my ideas long before I have to present them. But life isn't always like that. Sometimes, we have to be able to formulate a quick response that is reasonable and articulate. As individuals submit their ideas to the group to have them refined, the process of discussion can train them to think on their feet. While they may not always have the best answer lined up immediately, going through the process of coming up with responses will reinforce their ability to think critically in a hurry.

Articulate ideas: To say just the thing one means, and nothing more, is a great gift. I think it was Lewis who said it, but the principle is true regardless. Human communication is extremely difficult. Sometimes, simply articulating the ideas in our heads to ourselves feels impossible, not to mention articulating them to others. In discussion, we practice putting the right words to our thoughts, that is, the sort of words that save their meaning as well as transmit them to others. The more people practice this, the easier it gets.

Confidence: many of the young Christians I talk to aren't very confident in their beliefs. This is partly because they don't know very much, but it is mainly because they aren't used to being questioned on their beliefs. The process of discussion can remove some of the fears of ignorance, the fears of sounding dumb, and the fears of being wrong that make people generally unconfident in what they say. If they get used to being wrong with an argument, then they will be able to acknowledge their error more easily and will be more apt to try out new hypotheses to correct themselves. If they have been through the fire in a community that loves them and cares for them, then it will be much easier for them to go through the fire in an environment where having the best idea is the only thing that matters.

Better ideas than before: this seems obvious, but it works as a selling point. It turns out our ideas might not be very good, but that working on them by ourselves might not be as helpful as we might think. Discussion with others can help us go through the difficult process of exchanging worse ideas for better ones that some people call "learning."

These, then, are just a few reasons for embracing discussions (particularly in an educational context). Many of these themes will reappear in different form throughout the series, so get used to them. If there are other thoughts from readers, as always I would love to hear them in the comments.

Update:  I was going through some old notes and found some additional reasons for embracing discussion.

Breeds humility:  Confidence and humility are not opposed to each other:  in fact, it is crucial to keep them together.  In making students aware of both what they do understand, and what they do not understand,  discussion helps young people not be overly submissive or overly confident.  If students spend enough time in discussion about difficult issues, saying “I don’t know” will no longer be threatening or difficult.  Instead, they will be able to say with confidence and humility what they do not know, while also being able to articulate that which they do understand.

Builds attentiveness:  Life is happening all around us, but we notice very, very little of it.  So much more is communicated to us in our interactions with people or with nature than those parts of which we are aware.  The process of discussion overcomes this limitation by helping us pay better attention to the world around us.  During my college years, I once spent an entire weekend in a discussion class about a dialogue by Plato.  On Monday, when I returned to normal life, I was constantly amazed by how much was going on around me that I would never have noticed otherwise.  The time spent in discussion—listening to others, noticing what is going on in the text, paying attention to my words, etc.—bled over into my real life, enabling me to  make more careful distinctions and notice subtleties that I otherwise would have missed.

Engages the whole person:  Discussion is sometimes thought to be  something that we do with our heads, with our minds.  That could not be more false.  Because discussion is a human activity, it is an activity that draws in every part of us.  Our reason, our emotions, our body:  they must all be engaged.  As the mind is sharpened by interaction about ideas and questions, we also discover our deep emotional attachments to our own thoughts.  It turns out that saying “I was wrong” is not  a strictly rational affair.  Opening ourselves to hear other points of view is not a strictly rational practice.  The head and the heart are not so far apart.  And if anyone has ever tried to have a conversation late at night, in bed, you know the body matters.

Helps us mature:  Most people want their felt needs met.  They want to be comfortable, safe, secure, etc.  Of course, living without having these felt needs met is essential to emotional maturity.  In the learning process, though, having answers brings a far greater sense of security and safety than having questions.  It is humbling to not know the answer. It seems that in real life, though, we must become content with simply having questions, as the delay between the question and the answer is sometimes excruciatingly long. Answers, in fact, may never come.   Job asked some great questions of God, which God not-so-gently declined to answer.  Being comfortable in our ignorance is essential to maintaining emotional health in a complex and confusing universe, and the process of discussion can help bring students to that point.

Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.

Other posts in the series:

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.