Let’s start with the major thing we need all need to understand here, the difference between discourse and argument. For my own purposes, I see one major difference: discourse is a place and activity where views and opinions are open to being changed. Arguments are like World War I: gain a few yards at a time, but when you try to go over the top for a big push you get mowed down by machine-gun fire of agitated and unfair yelling. No one liked WWI, and no one likes an ugly argument so let’s move toward discourse.
Three major things to consider (for yourself and others involved) when engaging in discourse are the three pillars of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
In its essence, Ethos is the credibility of the speaker. Is the person who is speaking an authority on the subject, or have they at least done some research? When engaging in discourse, we should definitely respect and be open to other people’s opinions, but we also need to understand that not everyone’s opinion is created equal. An opinion formed from facts and research will always be more valid than a gut reaction, no matter how trustworthy the “gut.” If you haven’t done your research on the topic, don’t unreasonably entrench yourself in a line of thinking, be open to change. The person you are speaking with might have more Ethos than you, and that is OK. In fact, it’s good! Learn from them! If you want to change minds and opinions through discourse, do some research and understand both sides. If you don’t have the time or interest to do the research, recognize who holds Ethos in the discourse and be open to them. If you don’t choose to be open to them, you are the Red Baron and they are the Flying Ace, and you will forever chase each other round-and-round in a dog fight of flying words.
Simply put, Pathos is the ability to evoke emotion. Emotion is an important part of effective rhetoric. Without engaging a person’s emotion, it is near impossible to change their mind. Do not confuse involving emotion with manipulating emotion (that would be committing a logical fallacy). Once again, Pathos is something to be aware of in your own conversation. Recognize the emotion being brought into discourse from all sides (including yours), and do your best to reconcile the emotion involved with an argument’s Ethos and Logos so discourse can remain civil and effective. Speaking of Logos…
This may be the most important (and difficult) part of making something discourse and not an argument. Logos is the amount of logical oomph your argument has. When engaging in discourse be sure the ideas you are presenting have some logical backing. An argument with a significant logical support goes a long way in giving your argument (and you) Ethos. At the same time, be sure you are recognizing the logic (or lack thereof) behind the argument being made by others involved in the discourse. I want to offer one caveat to logic: logical arguments which lead to logical answers do not automatically mean correct answers (for examples see: The Third Policeman by Flan O’Brien). In order to be sure you don’t fall into any logical rabbit holes, look for a future post on logical fallacies.
Finding the balance between Ethos, Pathos, and Logos takes time, practice, and patience. Finally, the best piece of advice I ever got about engaging in discourse with someone else is this: be sure you are talking about the same thing. If you and the other party have different working definitions of a word or topic, be sure to clear that up immediately. Now, go learn something, teach something, and get out of the trenches of argument and start engaging in discourse!