Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation, #11 – Committing to and Actually Staying Focused on the Topic of the Current Conversation

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

Alert: this post’s focus on staying focused raises more questions than it answers and points to additional reading that informs the topic.  

Think about any common family or workplace disagreement, where the initial statement addresses some specific transgression (real or imagined) like clothes not put away, lights left on, staying out later than expected without calling or texting, arriving to work late, not getting a task done on time, etc. Often, when the accused responds to the accusation, what follows may include the accused’s pointing out some flaw or transgression of the accuser, and/or the accuser’s expanding the initial, specific complaint about the accused to an overall criticism of who and how he or she is.

Many arguments about abortion are characterized by people’s positions on several related, but separate issues: a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body; a human fetus’s right to life; and law as handed down and/or interpreted by various religions, governments and science, among others. Rarely, if ever, is one of these the single focus of a conversation.

Arguments about proposed, and opposition to, gun legislation intended to reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the United States include disagreements on how to interpret the second amendment; whether or not it’s guns or people responsible for these gunshot deaths; contrasting U.S. laws and culture with those of other countries that have significantly fewer gunshot deaths; and how gun manufacturer’s profits are used to lobby and support lawmakers’ political campaigns, among others.

Listen to or read the rhetoric around the accessibility to affordable health care debate in the U.S. Among the directions that conversation might go are whether health care is a right or a privilege; why the alleged wealthiest country in the world does not provide its citizens with the same level of health care as most other post-industrial countries; why the insurance industry wields more power than healthcare professionals when it comes to what services can be provided and under what conditions; why pharmaceutical companies produce billions of profit dollars while many drugs remain unaffordable to those who would benefit from them; there are, as you know, more.

Finally, if you have the stomach for it, read or listen to virtually any political debate or press conference. Rarely are the questions asked actually answered; often the moderators or journalists are engaged in proving a point rather than genuine journalistic inquiry; most of the politicians give short shrift to what they hope to avoid and ‘much longer shrift’ to the sound bites and slogans that their handlers believe are most expedient.

What’s someone who deeply wants to engage authentic dialogue on one thing at a time to do?

The answers to this are complex and manifold. Culture (beliefs, worldviews, values) and society (systems, infrastructure and environment) play a major role in creating the disadvantages of staying focused on a single issue in conversation. Whether we’re speaking about in-person disagreements, social media slugfests, televised or streamed eye-rolling contests among ‘experts,’ or any other conversational exchange, the combined effects of limited time, limited attention span, complex issues, dissimilar knowledge/ignorance*, training, experience, awareness, purpose, etc. among participants, the relative ‘safety and anonymity’ of social media and the pressure to perform in public and perhaps win (or not lose) something, are not conducive to engaging in conversation in order to learn, understand and clarify.

One approach to beginning to address these issues is to ‘simply’ agree on some ground rules regarding the focus of a given conversation – what is within and outside the context of this particular exchange. Of course this is not particularly simple to do – especially on social media or within the confines of televised time slots bounded by advertisers’ appeals, and in light of any of the above mentioned dissimilarities among participants. Still, it is doable for folks who, indeed, have a shared purpose in their disagreement.

For more reading on this topic, see Jesse Singal’sThe New Science of How to Argue—Constructively,” and one of his sources, John Nerst, who coined the word erisology to capture the study of unsuccessful disagreement. Full links below.

In essay #12 we’ll explore the usefulness of listening for and feeling into the emotion behind your own and others’ words.


*ignorance in the denotative meaning of the word – not knowing something. We often throw words around (and at each other) without agreeing on what they mean. This includes, but is not limited to, the generalizations, labels and insults referred to in essays five and seven.

Jesse Singal:

John Nerst:

John Nerst:

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