Borrowing from a bit of a discussion on what to aim for, how to conduct, and what form productive discussion ought take, some links and references I happen to have open.
I'm hugely impressed by Hacker News for not only having generally productive, but also highly compassionate discussions. This draws directly from the site's philosophy and activities of its moderator team, whose profiles frequently have links to such principles. Such as grzm (yes, the admins are somewhat intentionally nonobvious on the site).
The Principle of Charity is one of these. In essence: preconceptions about an argument, topic, or belief are set aside in an attempt to gain new understanding. Note that it calls for both suspending of our own beliefs and seeking a sympathetic understanding. More at Wikipedia.
A code of conduct for effective rational discussion lists a set of principles for discussion aimed at uncovering the truth of a matter. (NB: Uncovering truth is not the same as "winning arguments".) In particular: "Each participant should be committed to the task of earnestly searching for the truth or at least the most defensible position on the issue at stake."
"How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently" is a brief set of principles based on his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Again, the scope is furthering of factual understanding. From Arthur Martine in 1866: "let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery."
In particular, Dennet lays out what he calls "Rapaport's Rules", after Russian-American polymath Anatol Rapaport (fascinating guy):
- 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.
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.
It's worth noting that Dennett himself isn't all happy-go-lucky, and is quite willing to call bullshit on others, or on specific classes of ideas. The key is that he does so with strong reason and precision.
I've mentioned truth-seeking or dialectic discussion. This is one of several modes of writing, and is most frequently contrasted with rhetoric or persuasive argument. The key difference is that the supreme aim of dialectic is truth whilst for rhetoric it is persuasion. For various reasons, Plato was quite critical of rhetorical speech.
What I've found is a frequent cause of confusion and antagonism in discussion is when it is discovered that there are two different games being played on the same field: one set of participants engaged in dialectic, another in rhetoric. This is frequently made the worse when the rhetoriticians deny that they are in fact playing as such....
I'd also mentioned a few items earlier, including various rhetorical tricks that are frequently employed. It's when I discover that I'm engaging with those who are 1) playing rhetoric on a dialectical field and 2) are employing various dirty tricks, particularly whilst 3) relitigating well-and-thoroughly disproved claims or premises, that I act to remove them from the field, or at least my field of vision and earshot.