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Friday, May 19, 2023

The Intellectual Rules of Engagement

Guidelines for navigating the battle of ideas.

Image Credit: iStock

Have you ever had a debate with someone that felt like it went absolutely nowhere? It’s a common problem, especially for those of us who tend to be more opinionated. The good news is, there are things we can do to avoid this problem.

I realized recently that there tend to be certain contexts where debates will predictably end in frustration. Sometimes it’s because the person you are talking to just isn’t the right person to have this conversation with. Sometimes the topic just doesn’t lend itself well to debates, or it’s not the right place or time. Likewise, the motivation of the participants and their approach can also be red flags. In short, by thinking through the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of the discussion, you can often tell in advance which conversations will be fruitful and which will be a waste of time.

After a recent series of frustrating conversations, I realized it would be helpful if I synthesized these insights into some basic Rules of Engagement for intellectual discussions. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, of course. They’re more like guidelines, things to think about before engaging with someone on the intellectual battlefield. Instead of firing off opinions whenever I could, I wanted to be more judicious about when and how I engaged in intellectual combat.

The military has Rules of Engagement for a reason. They help us avoid chaotic and harmful situations, and they also create a strategy for success. I think Rules of Engagement can do the same in the battle of ideas. So here are five Intellectual Rules of Engagement to keep in mind out on the battlefield.

Rule 1) Do Not Fire Unless Fired Upon

This is one of the most basic Rules of Engagement in the military, and for good reason. Initiating a fight is often just asking for trouble. The same is true in the intellectual battlefield.

There’s a few different ways to think about this rule. One helpful paradigm is the distinction between “push conversations” and “pull conversations” that Brady Wilson talks about in his book Juice: The Power of Conversation. A push conversation is one where you are pushing your ideas onto other people. It invites defensiveness and pushback, and generally leads to poor outcomes. A pull conversation, in contrast, is one where you try to “pull” the other person closer to you. It’s a much gentler approach that tries to understand where the other person is coming from and then invites them to consider a slightly different way of seeing things. In short, don’t just go firing away. Instead, get curious about where they are at, and try to set up a situation where they are asking you about your views out of genuine curiosity and openness. In other words, let them fire first.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey outlines another way of thinking about this rule, which is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If you give the other person a chance to feel heard first, they will be much more willing to hear what you have to say.

The key here is restraint. A lot of people, especially opinionated people, can be very trigger happy when it comes to debating ideas. Every social convention, every dinner table, every social media post is seen as an opportunity to come in guns blazing. Don’t be that person. Don’t be looking for a fight everywhere you go. If you are thoughtful and knowledgeable, people will come to you with questions when they are ready.

When it comes to content creation you will of course be initiating conversations. But even here, the only people you are talking to are people who have voluntarily chosen to consume your content. It’s not wrong to start a conversation about ideas. What’s unadvisable is pushing that conversation on someone who’s not interested in having it. The point is, don’t engage with someone unless they’ve shown an interest in engaging.

Rule 2) Fight in Favorable Terrain

There is a vast range of terrain that discussions and debates can take place on. There are a variety of in-person contexts, there is social media, radio, television, podcasts, videos, lectures, articles, and books. Some of these landscapes are much more conducive to edifying and productive conversations than others. The key is to know which terrain is best, and to keep discussions as much as possible in that favorable terrain.

Personally, I’ve found that social media and in-person conversations are some of the worst forms of terrain. That social media is terrible terrain goes without saying. In-person debates are better because they open up tools such as body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, but it can be difficult to present clear, well-formulated ideas on the spot, and there also tends to be lots of interruptions and sidetracks.

Radio and television discussions run into similar problems. If you have the right people and the right topic, it’s possible to get a good conversation going, but the drive for soundbites and the reality of hard time limits makes it challenging to get very far.

Podcasts tend to be better, especially if they are long-form podcasts. Videos and lectures, likewise, give someone an opportunity to really lay out their argument without interruptions.

But the best terrain in my opinion is the written word, especially articles and books. There’s a reason scholarly debates take place in the literature and not on national television. An article not only gives you an uninterrupted space, it also forces you to be succinct and to synthesize your ideas. Unlike in spoken formats, excessive verbiage is kept to a minimum. You have to get right to the point and make it as clearly as possible. As a result, writing tends to be much more dispassionate and precise. It allows you to clarify your own thinking, and it also allows others to hold you to specific phrasings and to pinpoint potential errors in your reasoning.

So as much as possible, try to engage with ideas through the favorable terrain of articles and books, both as a learner and as a promulgator. If you want to share your perspective on an issue with a friend, try writing a blog post about it and sending it to them instead of giving them your take on the spot.

Rule 3) Don’t Waste Ammunition on an Impenetrable Wall

There are some people in our lives who are persuadable. They might not agree with us yet, but with good reasoning and a bit of time it’s possible they will eventually come to change their mind. There are others who, if we’re honest with ourselves, are likely never going to change. They are either too biased, closed-minded or, to be candid, too dull to get it.

This is a hard reality to accept. We don’t want to give up on people. We don’t want to write anyone off as unwinnable. But when it comes to allocating our resources, we need to be realistic about how persuadable someone is and not spend too much verbal ammunition firing at a wall that simply won’t budge.

This is the idea behind the saying “don’t cast your pearls before swine.” It’s not that everyone who disagrees with us is a pig. Far from it. The point is that we shouldn’t waste precious things on people who won’t appreciate them. In this case, don’t waste too much time and energy trying to convince people who are realistically beyond convincing.

Rule 4) Focus On Capturing Strategic Locations

While every location has value, some locations are more strategically important than others because they can be leveraged to control a much wider territory. The same is true in the battle of ideas. If you focus your efforts on persuading certain kinds of influential people, you will have a much greater impact than you would if you invested equally in everyone.

Some examples of strategic locations in the battle of ideas would include teachers, pastors, lawyers, judges, professors, journalists, politicians, pundits, business executives, and writers. These are the kinds of people who set the tone for a culture. Influencing people in general is great, but the big gains come when you can influence the influencers.

Another strategically important demographic is young people. Not only do they tend to be more open-minded (Rule 3), they also have in their ranks the teachers, pastors, and politicians of the future, so it’s worth spending extra time and attention trying to persuade them.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to reach others. (The military also tries to capture non-strategic locations.) This is just to say that when given the choice, all else equal, spend your time trying to persuade the people who’s paradigm shift would make a bigger difference.

And if you don’t have many strategic people in your life, a good way to reach them is through scalable content like videos and articles, where you can reach thousands more people than you would otherwise.

Rule 5) Leverage the Element of Surprise

When people are caught off guard, there’s a moment of chaos and uncertainty that can be taken advantage of. Long-established mental barriers come down, if only for a moment, and in that moment there is an opportunity to present a new idea to a mind that is exposed and, in a sense, vulnerable.

One common way of doing this is by presenting a shocking fact or statistic. When people are confronted with new information that surprises them, they have to reformulate their worldview to accommodate that information. That reformulation period is the perfect opportunity to introduce a new way of thinking about things, because they are looking for a perspective that will make sense of the new information.

Another great way of surprising people is just being something different from what they expect you to be. If they expect you to be a mindless ideologue, interact in a way that demonstrates you are thoughtful and nuanced. If they expect you to be the same as everyone else who belongs to what they think is your tribe, take a third position that challenges the framing of the issue altogether.

People will expect you to be closed-minded. Prove them wrong by being genuinely open to their ideas. People expect to learn nothing new. Prove them wrong by being educational and insightful. People expect you to be unaware of their objections. Prove them wrong by being familiar with all sides of the issue.

Your interlocutor should be so intrigued by you that they become curious and seek out your opinions of their own volition. Even though they may disagree, they regard you as the kind of person whose opinion is worth hearing. Why? Because you surprised them. You gave them something they weren’t expecting: value.

Applying the Rules

Having laid out the rules, let’s consider some examples of what it looks like to apply them in our day to day lives.

Example 1) Your conservative uncle starts going off about politics at Thanksgiving dinner like he does every year, in clear violation of Rule 1 and Rule 5 (it’s about as predictable as the sunrise, after all). You want to push back, but you realize that engaging him would go against Rules 2, 3, and 4, so you decide to just let him rant instead.

Example 2) You are introduced to someone at a party. They are a teacher (Rule 4) and seem interested in talking about ideas (Rule 1), but you quickly realize they are set in their ways (Rule 3), and they keep interrupting you every time you try to make a point (Rule 2). Rather than prolong the conversation, you politely suggest following up over email where the two of you can exchange book recommendations.

Example 3) You see AOC or Bernie Sanders post a bad take, so you submit an article to FEE (Rule 2) responding to their points (Rule 1), which will be broadcasted to an audience that you know is persuadable (Rule 3) and influential (Rule 4), and in the article you present a nuanced view that is educational and reframes the discussion in a way that challenges both sides to think about the issue differently (Rule 5).

Again, none of these are hard-and-fast rules. They are simply guidelines. The point is not to apply them rigidly. The point is to be intentional about how we engage in the battle of ideas. Far too many people just launch right into debates without thinking about whether their approach is tactful or helpful. The more we can engage with intentionality and purpose, the more we can avoid the conversations that accomplish nothing.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.


  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.