Logic 101 · Series

Logic 101: How to Have Fruitful Conversations (Part 1)

Even though the title of this post seems irrelevant in a series on logical reasoning, it isn’t. So far we’ve discussed what arguments are and what makes them good ones. Now I’ll discuss the the practical application of both of those discussions and everything between them. This material is so important that I’m going to devote two posts to it.

The material that I’ll be discussing in these posts is adapted from Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Speak, How to Listen and Greg Koukl’s Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. By the end you should not only have a greater understanding of what this website is all about, but how you can expect conversations about Oneness Pentecostal theology to be conducted here.

This post will discuss principles from Adler’s book, and lead into a discussion of the principles in Koukl’s book.

Conversation vs. Discussion

Arguments always appear in conversational contexts. When somebody has made their thoughts publicly available, their goal is typically to convince their hearers or readers of something. I say “or readers” because reading is also a form of conversation, or at least should be. So what is a conversation?

A conversation is an exchange of ideas between two or more people (or groups of people). Even if you are just talking about the weather with somebody you are exchanging ideas. Both social and serious conversations involve exchanging one another’s ideas.

A discussion, on the other hand, is a conversation that has a particular, stated goal in mind. Not all conversations are discussions, since we sometimes engage in social or playful conversation with no clear objective in mind. But every discussion involves the exchanging of ideas for a particular purpose.[1]

There are at least two goals for any discussion that we have. The first is to simply get each other thinking. Because of the amount of time it might take, sometimes all we can do in a particular conversation is inform one another of what we think. This gets us thinking. But at later times we may be able to pursue a greater goal: the “meeting of minds.”[2]

The meeting of minds occurs when two things have happened: (1) Both individuals/groups in the discussion understand what the other claims and why; (2) Both agree or disagree based on that understanding. The ULTIMATE RULE of the meeting of minds is this: Do not say you agree or disagree until you can first say that you understand the other side.

The first rule to be followed is this. Do not disagree—or, for that matter, do not—with anyone else unless you are sure you understand the position to other person is taking.
—Mortimer J. Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen, 159.

In an earlier post I said that the main goal of logical reasoning as a whole is to learn. Now we see that, when applied to discussions, we seek to come to a meeting of minds. A conversation is “fruitful” when it fulfills its particular purpose. In theological discussions, that goal is the meeting of minds.

Let’s turn now to specific things we can do to have fruitful conversations. These principles of course apply directly to theological conversations, but they apply to many other kinds of conversations as well.

Three Principles for Effective Communication

When two or more people or groups are engaged in conversation, one person is typically speaking while the others are listening (ideally, at least). It’s important, then, for everybody who wants to have fruitful conversations to learn how to speak to others and to listen to them.

Because of Adler’s book, every time I write a paper or a speech I put three Greek words in the top margin while I’m writing: ethos, pathos, and logos. He discusses each of these words at length in How to Speak, How to Listen. In the context of the book, these concepts are brought up to demonstrate how to give effective persuasive speeches. However, persuasive speeches aren’t the only application of these principles with the proper imagination.

Here’s what he means by each of them and how they relate to speaking effectively:

Ethos refers to how speakers establish their credentials and character when they speak.[3] (In the sales world this is called “building rapport.”) When we begin conversations with somebody new, we introduce ourselves. Even more effectively, we can have a mutual friend introduce us, because then there is a link of trust. Have you ever noticed that a guest speaker typically thanks the individuals who allowed them the opportunity as they begin? That’s ethos.

Pathos is “the motivating factor” in a speech.[4] When we listen to others, we want to know why we should be listening in the first place. When we read books, we want to know why they are worth our time at all. One of the best ways to do this is to show how the topic is intellectually exciting. If it’s exciting to you, it will be easier to tell others why they should be excited too. And if they get excited, they will be motivated to listen to you.

Above all, intellectual excitement on the part of the teacher (even though what is being dealt with is old hat to the teller) serves to produce like excitement on the part of the listener.
—Mortimer J. Adler, How to Speak, How to Listen, 54-55.

Logos is the use of logical reasoning.[5] The previous two elements prepare us to receive reasons why we should act or believe something.

Here’s how all three get put together in a conversation. Introduce yourself by giving your credentials (if necessary) and show that you have a good character (ethos). After all, [he who wants friends show himself friendly.] Give good reasons to the other person (or group of people) why what you’re discussing is important (pathos). Then give your arguments for your position (logos). It’s that simple.

How to Listen

There is a time to speak during a conversation, and there is also a time a to listen. In my opinion, listening is far more important for the Christian. When we are speaking, it is easier to fall into the temptation to prove we are right, sometimes at any cost. Listening requires far more patience. Anybody can speak about things they care about; few have the skill to really listen to what others care about.

I agree with Dallas Willard here: “We should make it a rule never to try merely to prove that we are right.”[6] In conversation, it is better to gain more understanding than to get in another argument or clever jab. We do this by listening.

So how do we listen to one another effectively? The first step is to realize that listening well means listening actively. To put it negatively, listening is not a passive exercise. As a result, we must become aware of any tendencies we have that reinforce passive listening (or not listening at all) and then avoid them.

One of the worst tendencies, for example, is to simply wait for a person to finish talking so you can state your own point. In my undergraduate studies, I noticed I had a tendency to do this. I noticed other students had a tendency to do this in seminars as well. As a result, most of my in-class discussions were nearly useless in the end.

Starting your own point with “Going off of what he/she/you said…” doesn’t always mean what you have to say is at all relevant to what another person said. We would all do well to avoid this habit by responding directly to what was said rather than using what another said indirectly by jumping off and making our own points on the same theme.

The worst bad habit is obviously to not listen, or to make what’s supposed to be a conversation a one-sided speech. We all like our own ideas, so naturally when the opportunity comes up we talk about them. But often this means disregarding others in the process. Without listening, we are giving a monologue, not having a dialogue.

On that note, comment below if you think there’s other bad habits we should avoid during conversations.

Asking the Right Questions

The second step toward becoming an active listener is to formulate questions while you are listening. There are three types of questions that we will discuss in the next post, and the “model questions” that you can use in any conversation to achieve the goals of each of these three question types.



[1] Mortimer J. Adler. How to Speak, How to Listen (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 14-15.

[2] Ibid., 158.

[3] Ibid., 30.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 122.

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