Help me come up with “rules for conversation”!

In my role as Managing Editor for, I’m realizing the need to develop some “rules for conversation.”

We describe the tone that we’re after as “clarity and charity,” which is an excellent summary. However, to guide our blogposts and comments, I think we need something more detailed and concrete.

With that in mind, “Rapoport’s Rules” and “Adler’s Advice” seem like excellent starting points.

But, if you have any further suggestions, please let me know in the comments!

Rapoport’s Rules

I’ve posted about these rules before on my blog. Click that link for a bit more information. Here are the rules.

When critiquing someone else:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Adler’s Advice

Rapoport’s Rules are an excellent start, but surely there’s more out there!

Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Speak How to Listen contains some practical advice in Chapter 11 on “How to Make Conversation Profitable and Pleasurable.”

(NOTE: Page numbers below are from the Scribd e-book. They might not perfectly coincide with the hardcover or paperback.)


First, Adler highlights four factors or obstacles that need to be recognized and overcome for a successful conversation to take place.

  1. Language: We must, of course, use it, but “it is a very imperfect medium of communication—cloudy, obscure, full of ambiguities and pitfalls of misunderstanding.” (136).
  2. Emotion(s): Perfectly fine in heart-to-heart talks, but “emotions are entirely out of place in impersonal conversations that have as their goal the achievement of better understanding and the attainment of agreement about the resolution of purely intellectual issues.” (138).
  3. Self-Knowledge: “Understanding one’s self is a necessary condition for understanding anyone else.” (138).
  4. Effort: “Saying what you mean is one of the hardest things in the world to do. Listening to what others say in order to discern what they mean is equally hard. Both call for expenditures of intellectual energy that many persons are loath to make.” (140).


  1. Pick the right place and occasion for a conversation, one that provides sufficient time for carrying it on and one that is free from the annoyance of distractions that interrupt or divert it.” (140).
  2. Know in advance what kind of conversation you are trying to have.” (141).
  3. “For whatever kind of serious conversation it is to be, select the right people with whom to have it.
    1. “Don’t try to discuss everything with everybody. …
    2. “Most important of all, never engage in the discussion of a problem with someone you know in advance has a closed mind on that subject.” (142).
  4. Certain matters are undiscussable and, therefore, one should avoid discussing them.
    1. “The familiar maxim, de gustibus non disputandum est [Latin: “about tastes, it should not be disputed”], is more often disobeyed than honored, and yet violating this rule always turns two-way talk into nothing more than an exchange of personal prejudices. …
    2. “Only about matters concerning which objective truth can be ascertained is it worthwhile to engage in argument of one sort or another for the sake of ascertaining it.” (143–44).
  5. Don’t listen only to yourself.” (144).
    1. “All of us have had the experience of conversation that proceeds in the following manner. Brown speaks while Jones remains silent, not listening to what Brown says, but only waiting politely for Brown to finish, at which time Jones enters the conversation with a statement of something on his mind that may have no relation whatsoever to what Brown has just said. While Jones speaks, Brown also politely waits, but does not listen. When Jones finishes, Brown then expands on what he said earlier or talks about something else that in no way relates to what Jones has just expressed.
    2. “They might just as well have been in different rooms talking to themselves, because that is the only person they have been listening to.” (144–45).
  6. “A closely related rule calls on you to listen to a question with an effort to understand it before answering it, and then with an effort to address yourself to the question in the light of your understanding of it.
    1. “Many persons take questions as nothing more than signals for them to speak, uttering whatever happens to be on their mind at the moment, whether or not it has any relevance to the question that calls for their response.
    2. “If you have any sense at all that you may not understand the question you have been asked, don’t try to answer it. Instead ask your interrogator to explain the question, to rephrase it in some way that makes it more intelligible to you.
    3. “There is no point in trying to answer questions you do not completely understand. Keep at the task of reaching for that understanding before you attempt to answer.” (145).
  7. “A parallel rule, if you are on the questioning rather than the answering end of a conversation, is to ask your questions as clearly and as intelligibly as possible.” (145).
  8. “There is still one more rule about questions in relation to good serious conversation. Some people think that they are engaging in conversation when they ask another person one question after another, receiving each answer without commenting on it, and without any connection between the questions asked in sequence. This may be a form of interrogation that is useful under certain conditions and for certain purposes, but it is not a conversation in which the interchanges of two-way talk advance significantly from one point to another.” (145).
  9. Don’t interrupt while someone else is speaking.” (145).
  10. Don’t be rude by engaging in a side conversation while someone to whom you should be listening is talking.
    1. At the same time, don’t be too polite. One should always be civil in the tone and manner of one’s utterances, but excessive politeness should not restrain one from saying what is on one’s mind.
    2. “If you think what you have to say may be offensive, try to phrase it in such a way that giving offense is avoided, but do not clam up when what you have to say deserves saying.” (145-46).
  11. “Recognize that anything that takes time should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is as true of a conversation as of a play or a symphony. …
    1. “The beginning should set the stage for the conversation by focusing on the theme—the problem, the question, the subject to be discussed.
    2. “The middle, which should run for a longer time, should be devoted to exploring the problem, the question, or subject and should elicit all the differences of opinion that are relevant to it, with support for these opinions to be given by argument.
    3. “The end should bring the conversation to a conclusion—a decision reached if the conversation has a practical purpose, a position agreed upon if the matter is theoretical.
    4. “If agreement is beyond reach, then the conclusion may involve suspended judgment and the tabling of the matter in question for further conversation, and perhaps resolution, at a later time.” (145–47).

Recommendations for Impersonal Conversations

Intellectual Rules

  1. “If you are an active participant in a conversation or discussion, your first obligation is to focus on the question to be considered. What is the problem to be solved, the issue to be settled, the subject to be explored? If the matter is complex and has a number of component elements, those engaged in the conversation would be well advised to break it up into its parts, label them, and put them in some order.” (150).
  2. Stick to the issue. Stay within the framework of the subject under consideration, either as a whole or with respect to one or another of its parts. Don’t wander off and talk about something else or intrude irrelevancies into the course of the conversation.” (150).
  3. “Stick to the issue or the point, but don’t beat it to death. Don’t stay on it forever. Keep moving on to the next point when this one has been sufficiently explored or discussed.” (151).
  4. Individuals not only bring unacknowledged assumptions to a conversation in which they are engaged, they also take part in it without knowing what their blind spots are—matters concerning which they lack understanding and have difficulty in attaining.
    1. “Like unacknowledged assumptions, blind spots can ruin a conversation or at least prevent the minds engaged in it from really meeting.”
    2. “Be on the alert to recognize when you are failing to understand something and press for help in understanding it.
    3. “You should be aware that you have certain preconceptions and assumptions, and try to dredge them up from the recesses of your mind and lay them on the table for everyone to examine.
    4. “Since few conversations begin at the beginning and different things are taken for granted by the persons talking with one another, the rule might better be stated as follows. Ask your companions to grant the assumptions you wish to make, and state your own assumptions when it comes their turn to ask you for them.” (151–152).
  5. Avoid the most obvious fallacies.
    1. Never argue about facts; look them up if you wish to settle a difference of opinion about them.
    2. Never cite authorities as if the citation of them were conclusive.
    3. Don’t argue ad hominem, “attacking persons rather than attacking the point being considered.”
    4. “When the conversation is theoretical rather than practical, when it is concerned with getting at the truth about a certain matter, then taking a vote should never be regarded as settling the question in issue.
    5. Beware of examples. They often prove too much or too little and they are seldom perfectly relevant. … Examples can be useful, but only to illustrate what you are saying, never to prove it.”
    6. “Examples should be treated like assumptions. Just as assumptions should be allowed to exert whatever force they have only with everyone’s explicit acknowledgment and consent, so examples should stand only if everyone sees their relevance and is aware that they are being used to illustrate a point, not to prove it.” (153–56).

Emotional Rules

  1. “catch yourself or the other person getting angry. The signs that this is happening are many and various:
    1. you or he start to shout;
    2. you or he become repetitious, raising your voice with each reiteration of the point;
    3. you or he become overpositive, expressing this by pounding the table or by other forms of gesturing;
    4. you or he indulge in sarcasm, in teasing, in baiting, or in getting the other’s argument laughed at;
    5. or either of you resorts to the kind of irrelevant ad hominems mentioned above.”
  2. When you find yourself getting annoyed, angry, or overexcited in the course of an argument, leave the room and give yourself time to cool off.
  3. Do not allow an impersonal discussion to become a personal quarrel. Argument is not aggression. There is no point at all in trying to win an argument simply by putting your opponent down or beating him up.”
  4. Be aware of the results of emotional disorder on your own part. … There is certainly no point in winning an argument for personal or emotional reasons that impel you to try to get the better of the other person when your mind either knows now or will recognize later that he was right and you were wrong.” (156–57).

“The Meeting of Minds” (Chapter 12, Highlights)

You must understand before you can agree or disagree.

The first rule to be followed is this. Do not disagree—or, for that matter, do not agree—with anyone else unless you are sure you understand the position the other person is taking. To disagree before you understand is impertinent. To agree is inane.

To make sure that you understand, before you disagree or agree, exercise the courtesy of asking the other person the following question: “Do I understand you to say that . . . ?” Fill in the blank by phrasing in your own words what you think you hear the other person saying. He may respond to this by saying to you, “No, that is not what I said or not what I meant. My position is as follows.” Then, after the other person has restated his position for you, you should once again try to state in your own words what you have understood the other to say. If the other still dissents from your interpretation, you must continue with this question and answer procedure until the other tells you that you have at last caught the point, that you understand him precisely as he wishes to be understood. Only then do you have the grounds indispensable for intelligent and reasonable disagreement or agreement.” (159–60).

Fully understood disagreement and fully understood agreement.

“Understanding with disagreement—fully understood disagreement—constitutes a minimal meeting of minds. A more complete meeting of minds consists in understanding with agreement—fully understood agreement.” (161).

There are 4 kinds of genuine disagreement.

“If you find yourself in genuine disagreement with the position taken by another, you should be able to explain the grounds of your disagreement, by saying one or more of the following things.

  1. “I think you hold that position because you are uninformed about certain facts or reasons that have a critical bearing on it.” Then be prepared to point out the information you think the other lacks and which, if possessed, would result in a change of mind.
  2. “I think you hold that position because you are misinformed about matters that are critically relevant.” Then be prepared to indicate the mistakes the other has made, which, if corrected, would lead the other to abandon the position taken.
  3. “I think you are sufficiently well informed and have a firm grasp of the evidence and reasons that support your position, but you have drawn the wrong conclusions from your premises because you have made mistakes in reasoning. You have made fallacious inferences.” Then be ready to point out those logical errors which, if corrected, would bring the other person to a different conclusion.
  4. “I think you have made none of the foregoing errors and that you have proceeded by sound reasoning from adequate grounds for the conclusion you have reached, but I also think that your thinking about the subject is incomplete. You should have gone further than you did and reached other conclusions that somewhat alter or qualify the one you did reach.” Then be able to point out what these other conclusions are and how they alter or qualify the position taken by the person with whom you disagree.” (162–63).

By joshuapsteele

The Rev. Dev. I solve problems with a pastor's heart for people and a programmer's eye for detail. Learn more at

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