Great Courses Professor Offers Three Words for Healthy Debate

counterintuitive skills like paraphrasing and probing may be key to debate

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

In recent years, psychologists have found that arguing is ineffective. Trying too hard to prove someone wrong—even with facts—increasingly makes them double down on their opinion. The best way to argue someone into seeing your point of view? Don’t.

Group of students debating topics
Instead of listening with a focus of invalidating what another person is saying, showing the active listening skills of paraphrase, praise, and probe would produce a constructive conversation. Photo By WAYHOME studio / Shutterstock

While religion is becoming an easier topic of debate, politics has at least stayed as volatile as always, if not gotten even worse. During political arguments, we frequently find that the harder we try to persuade someone into seeing our perspective—even when we provide irrefutable facts—they simply dig in and refuse to consider what we say.

As frustrating as this phenomenon is, it’s possible to employ better communication and listening skills to have healthier and more effective disagreements. In an exclusive interview with The Great Courses, Professor Seth Freeman, Adjunct Professor at at New York University Stern School of Business and at Columbia University, explained the three words to keep at the forefront of your mind in an argument to have a good, healthy debate.

The Lost Art of Conversation

How do we turn an argument from a fight into something more resembling a dance?

“The surprise is that it actually takes just three words to do this kind of work, and each word represents a principle,” Professor Freeman said. “The three words are these: Paraphrase, Praise, Probe. In essence, what this is, is the exact opposite of what I was trained to do in law school.”

According to Professor Freeman, his training taught him to “think litigiously,” or to think that whenever someone says something, he should listen to it with his focus on invalidating it and proving it wrong or otherwise faulty. He said that’s how we tend to argue, which is exemplified by the common phrase “Yes, but …”

“Paraphrase, Praise, Probe is the exact opposite of that, and, counterintuitively, it actually is more effective in most ways one would hope for [to engage] conversation,” he said.

Three Simple Words

Paraphrasing is saying back to someone your closest approximation of what they’ve said, but if we’re not careful, we often fall prey to logical fallacies when we do this. We put words in people’s mouths, we make false equivalencies, and so on. That’s why it’s so crucial to fairly and accurately represent their point back to them. Professor Freeman said the way to know you’re on the right track is when they say something like “Exactly!” or “Wow, you said it even better than I did.”

“To be clear, this is not about agreeing, necessarily; what you’re merely doing is trying to show that you understand,” he said.

Praising seems even more counterintuitive than paraphrasing, but it works.

“Here, what you’re doing is, you’re listening for that which you can affirm—something that is truthful, that is non-obvious, that is non-ironic, and that is non-trivial that you can honor, that you’ve learned, something that you can affirmatively validate,” Professor Freeman said. “You can say something like ‘I really appreciate the concern that you bring to this issue; I share that concern,’ or you can say ‘I really hear your eloquence here. I see that this is a deep, heartfelt concern for you.'”

It may sound like a small gesture, but it’s a gesture nonetheless and it lets the other party know you’re listening and their words aren’t going to waste.

Probing is where you shift the focus, Professor Freeman said, which you can preface by saying so. At this point, you make an adjacent or related comment or question, but the reasons why and how you do so are vital.

“You ask a question or you bring up something that’s on your mind as a co-seeker of truth, and that’s the critical thing,” he said. “You’re not here trying to attack the other; you’re in a sense in the front seat of a car together. One of you is driving and one of you is navigating [and] alone, neither of you is going to get to the destination—the truth—but together you may get close to it.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily