Learning how to have a dialogue

There was a time in Europe when disputes would be settled at the tip of a sword; when blood was drawn over insults and miscommunications. While rules were eventually developed to regulate fights, death was still common. Fortunately, we live in a time when disputes and arguments are resolved with words and not blows.

And yet, there was always a clear winner in a swordfight. The one who possessed the most skill, the one who had trained the hardest and acquired the most knowledge would draw blood first and win the fight. Similarly, dialogues and discussions are an art, although few seem to understand this.

Too often, someone of an opposing viewpoint will latch onto a single word or one solitary concept and continue to thrust it in your face, unsuccessfully, again and again and again.

For those of us who want to learn how to win a battle with words, there are lessons we might learn from our sword-fighting forebearers.

First, everyone entering a duel understood that a simple stab might prove fatal. Each combatant aimed at vital organs with precision, or struck at hands and faces to disable one’s opponent. There was no wild flailing, no flinging of blades in random directions hoping to strike something. So too should we choose our words with accuracy, pointedly directing them toward the subject matter. If you are discussing the economy, do not jab for Guantanamo. If you want to disable your opponent’s argument on foreign policy, do not strike at their patriotism or pride. Aim for the heart of the matter.

Second, true sword fighting took place “in the round.” While the modern sport of fencing is played linearly, one fighting a duel in medieval Europe circled their opponent. Similarly, one should come at an argument from all sides. If you only attack head on, over and over again, you show your arguments weakness. Your tactic becomes a one trick puppy, simplistic and easily evaded. By testing the perspectives and engaging alternative ideas, one can begin to come at a topic with finesse and mobility, capable of coming to multiple conclusions, all supporting your main argument.

And third, and perhaps most importantly, duels were hardly ever fought with just a sword. Often, a swordsman carried a parrying-dagger. If they lacked one, they used whatever else they had as a “main-gauche,” whether it was their cloak or a lantern. These swordsmen understood the necessity of a good defense. Very often, the “one-trick-puppy” will forget that they must actually support their position. When they make a bold claim and can only back it up by saying “because I’m right,” they not only lose the argument but come across as willfully ignorant, incapable of critical thinking and logical reasoning. They become their own killing blow.

While the outcome of two skilled debaters might lack the same finality of someone who has just run their opponent through with a sword, we should remember that we are not necessarily looking to “win.” And some should remind themselves that we are not looking to maim or kill our opponents either. Ultimately, within an atmosphere of humility and respect we are making an effort to understand, to come together, and to learn from one another.

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