Letter to an engineer: on conversations of debate and exploration

Dear friend,

I appreciate your so-called engineering mindset. It's great to aim to approach things rationally, to understand things from the ground up, to do analysis of how systems work and how each components contributes to each functionality. Many times this is a breath of fresh air in a world that's clinging to emotional reassurance without substance and illusions or ignorance in the form of hope.

The above is definitely appreciated yet I want to draw your attention to something opposite to it which might still be true. I will try to explain it but I might fail in which case I ask you to consider the principle of charity.

When someone is saying something that doesn't make sense, don't set out to explain to them why what they are saying is wrong. In other words, when you disagree with someone because they are saying something that makes you think they are ignorant with respect to something, don't rush to assume that they are saying what they want to say. First consider that they are saying something, which means they are motivated to say this specific thing. Consider that this specific thing is specific in their mind but probably not well defined in the form of language, quite possibly because of their inability to form it well into language.

Then, consider why they are motivated to say this specific thing. They might be motivated because of ego, because they want to prove to you or someone else in the room (even themselves) that they have something to say, and "win". In this case, I have no interest and nothing to respond to. But something else might be the case. Maybe they are motivated to say what they are saying because they sense something is not right. That something is off. That there is something there — in that domain or argument — that hasn't been revealed yet in the conversation. In that case, consider to help them pinpoint and reveal it. Consider this a collective effort of figuring out truth. Accept their inability to pinpoint it exactly, either because it's hard to do so, or even because it's hard for them to do so — it's irrelevant which case it is.

This is in contrast to showing them why what they are saying is wrong because they are missing something. I know: you might be responding in this way because that's how you would like to be responded to. You might be responding in this way because you believe this is the right thing to do, to have the decency to take someone at their word. If you were speaking imprecisely, you would appreciate someone showing you how your language is imprecise by using words and arguments. This is definitely worthy; I am glad you are doing it and please don't think of this as an argument of why you shouldn't do it. My suggestion is to consider that maybe it's not the best course of action for all conversations. My suggestion is to first understand that the person you are conversing with is confident that what they have said reflects what's on their mind accurately. If they use phrases like "something like" or "this is connected to" or analogies, then this might not be a conversation of debate but of exploration.

What I'm going to say next is hopefully predictable: maybe what I said doesn't make sense. Maybe you think I'm missing something. This might well be the case. I will carefully consider your argument and try to understand what you're saying even if I don't think your words reflect what's on your mind. I will try to use my words to reflect what I think is on your mind. And I hope you do the same!