Discussions : Different attitudes we assume.

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A discussion is a very complex and interesting phenomenon. It is made so by the complexity of human beings. When two or more humans get together and exchange ideas, there are so many directions this can lead to.

Whether you like it or not, when you are a part of a discussion group, you don’t alone steer the direction it will take, you will mould it in conjunction with others. This realization makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They will rather be in full control.

Uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing, it has its rewards as well. Uncertainty brings learning, it brings new, never-imagined-before directions.

Getting back to the discussion, there are certain hats(attitudes) people wear when they engage in a discussion. While most of us wear all the different hats at some point or the other(sometimes even during the same discussion), there are certain hats that we wear more often. Our experience and take-away from the discussion depends greatly on this choice. Let me describe the hats I can think of. I am using the male gender for convenience.

The samurai. The one wearing this is out to protect his honor. He will defend the words he has said and the ideas he has put forward at all costs. In fact, he is not there to discuss. He is there to prove himself right. From his standpoint, there is only one way a consensus can be reached, when everyone agrees to what he says.

The one with the back problem. This person doesn’t have a spine. He is there to say Yes, to anything and to everything. He has no opinion on the topic and a low opinion of himself. He will not add anything of value and, most probably, will not gain any either. Most big discussions have such people in big numbers.

The negative skeptic. He will question whatever consensus is being reached. He doesn’t believe that a good, clean solution exists. This attitude extends to other areas in his life as well. He takes pride in his ability to question things. If you feel like resigning and handover the decision to him, his feet grow cold. Responsibility that comes with decision making is too much for him. He is comfortable only with criticizing everybody’s solutions.

The positive skeptic. He will question every possible consensus too. But he believes there is a good, clean solution possible, and he is looking for it. Once satisfied, he will give his consent to the solution.

The student. He is there to understand and learn. His focus is not as much on the consensus as on gaining wisdom. He is curious and he is observant. He is among the most excited about the whole affair, less probably than the samurai, who also cherishes the opportunity because it allows him to fight and prove himself.

Advantages of each hat, if any

I can’t think of one situation where being a samurai can help. Even the ego satisfaction on ‘winning the discussion’ seems momentary and has a sinking feeling attached to it.

Back problems also don’t seem beneficial in any way. If you find yourself having a back problem in a discussion, you need to question yourself – Why are you there? What are you gaining by being a part of something to which you are not adding anything or receiving anything?

Being a skeptic is beneficial. It helps in ‘stress testing’ an idea – brainstorming all possible ways in which a solution can break. This helps ensure the soundness of the solution. But having faith, having hope is important. Pessimism helps in no way. Be a positive skeptic.

Being a student is exciting! Stagnation is death, you get that on your death bed. But till that happens, there is no reason to stop growing. Learn, learn, learn! If you frequently have the student hat on, your wisdom is going to shine like the sun one day.

The way I see it, flitting between a positive skeptic’s hat and a student’s hat will take you a long way forward. For the rest of the hats, a garbage dump would be a good place.

Dealing with different hats

Discussions seem to be of two types – those with the aim of reaching a consensus so that some further action can be taken. And those that are held on coffee tables, for nothing else but their own sake.

1. If you have samurais in your midst, rest assured a common consensus is a gone case, unless you have just one samurai and you agree to his solution. The other possible scenarios are, one, he gets outnumbered and reluctantly agrees to the general consensus, two, the discussion is abandoned without a decision, and three, he quits or has to be removed from the discussion.

You cannot reach any other conclusion with his willing consent.

I suppose the best bet is is to not engage with him. He just wants that. He can fight for ages to protect his honor, but you will loose your energies, focus and time and your effort towards a consensus will be hampered. Check you ego and temper, be tactful. Don’t show disrespect but don’t allow him your attention either. Focus on getting the consensus of the rest of the group. Once you have that, act as if it was with everyone’s consent.

In a coffee table discussion, you will do best to avoid samurais altogether. Such discussions will be all out ego wars that will just waste energy and time. If in case you find yourself with one, try not to engage. Tactfully and compassionately find a way out.

2. People with back problems can be mostly ignored. Ignore with compassion. To make effort, to strive, is a personal decision. You cannot make someone do that, not for long. The drive to participate, to make a contribution has to come from within these people. Try to understand what they feel. If you think you can encourage them, do so gently and then let go. Don’t expect anything in return.

3. Don’t ask a negative skeptic for a solution. He will take you on a long ride that will bring you back to the same spot. On the other hand, if you want to check the viability of a solution, put it in front of him and just watch the test results pour out.

If the discussion is on a coffee table, you can again test various ideas on this person. Be careful to keep your ego on a leash, it will have sudden strong urges to attack the skeptic. That might turn him into a Samurai. Approach him with an aim to better understand, solidify and better your own ideas.

4. The positive skeptic is the best friend you can have in a discussion. He has no ego like that of the samurai, and he is not a pessimist like his negative counterpart. He has an inherent drive to find a solution and he is enthusiastic about it. Nothing to worry about this one.

In a coffee table discussion, a positive skeptic is a pleasure to exchange ideas with. Discussions with such people are fun, enlightening and exciting, all at the same time!

5. The student is found more in the coffee table discussions. Nothing to worry about them either. They have good potential in them that needs be nurtured and encouraged.

On a coffee table, they will be willing to learn from you. Be compassionate, oblige them with your understanding, encourage them to share their own heart.


Let me know what you think. Can you think of other hats? Can you think of a better way to deal with certain types? Leave comments below.


  • Prateek
    July 13, 2011 - 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Good post Rahul!

    One of the great example of discussion(or shall we call it debate) is Sidney Lumet’s movie “12 Angry Men” which was adapted in hindi as “Ek Ruka Hua Faisla” by Basu Chatterjee.I think juror #8 fits positive skeptic very well,#3 (brilliantly played by Pankaj Kapur) is the negative skeptic who when challenged by #8 turns into a Samurai.#7(the guy with movie ticket) is the back problem guy he flips his opinion without any consideration and #2 with his first jury service fits the student role to some extent now I am thinking what shades other 8 characters were playing :)
    There is another method of conducting discussion called Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono[1] which emphasizes on moving from one thinking mode to another,you may find it interesting.

    1. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Six_Thinking_Hats

    • Rahul
      July 13, 2011 - 9:21 pm | Permalink

      Glad you like it. And that is a very good example you picked!
      I have seen both movies, but don’t remember every character now. I vaguely remember there were a few positive skeptics and a few negative skeptics.
      Some may have switched between types during the discussion, or maybe there are other types I missed.
      I have this book you mention but have never read it. I once opened a random page and saw the idea of defining attitude types with hats. I liked the idea and stole it for this piece :)
      The movies are both good, I highly recommend them to everyone. I liked the original(English) version somewhat better in execution.

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