How to Have an Intellectual Conversation

What do politics, sports, and religion have in common? Aside from being extremely lucrative career paths for men, they are totally taboo conversational topics and you never discuss them. Ever.

Why do you think this is so?

Because conversations about topics that tend to polarise people in a powerful way always end in fights: Catholics versus Protestants, Man United Football Club versus Liverpool, Democrats versus Republicans, etc. In the case of sports, these rivalries often end in bar fights; in politics, to endless bickering and dick waving; and in religion, to war. So we just avoid them in our day-to-day conversations. It’s better that way.

Or is it?

Let’s be clear right off the bat: This is not about what qualifies as an intellectual topic of conversation. I’m not going to sit here and list off all the interesting and worldly things you should be talking about with your mates or about how to sound really smart to the lady or guy you’re on a date with. Rather, this is about the package those topics come in: the words, logic, and language you use to discuss, dissect, refute, and embrace new ideas.

That’s the key, really…new ideas.

dog at computer with glasses

Nowadays, too many people refuse to allow new ideas to percolate into their atmosphere. How the heck are we ever going to expand our mental horizons and learn about all the amazing things happening outside our bubble if we constantly keep our opinions to ourselves and refuse to listen to those of others? It’s through intellectual debate that we at least learn to appreciate how people other than ourselves think and rationalise.

This brings to mind a fairly relevant anecdote:

Many years ago, a weedy looking fellow sidled up to me on a Sydney-bound train. There were dozens of other seats available in the cabin but he chose my personal space instead and, planting his derriere in the seat directly opposite me, said: “Have you found Jesus?” My brain twitched to life. I’d heard about people like this and I’d always wanted to engage one in an intellectual battle. Since he had approached me completely unsolicited on the subject, I felt I didn’t have to censor my argument; I wasn’t talking to a dear friend whose feelings I actually cared about. The gloves were off. Let’s go!

This loyal disciple of Jesus began explaining how, in five simple steps, I could atone for all my sins and earn my place in heaven. Within the first few minutes of this business pitch / religious monologue, my brain, at first eager to engage in battle, began drifting off and instead treated me to a playback reel of the previous night’s iniquities involving a medium rare steak, two bottles of Australian craft beer, and a very beautiful woman.

The question here isn’t why I only had two beers, it’s why I would waste my time talking to a person who obviously wasn’t going to change his mind about what he believed. What’s the point of such a conversation? It’s only going to steer us towards certain social disharmony and possibly disaster.

The answer to this, my friends, is two-fold: (1) I was bored and had nothing better to do, and (2) because having conversations with people isn’t about changing their minds, it’s about expanding your own. The tendency of human beings to force our opinions and worldviews onto others really cripples our ability to have intellectual conversations and debates with each other. We’re so focused on the end goal – on converting another’s opinions to our own – that we neglect to begin these conversations in the first place. Why bother? It’s only going to end in an argument.

Bollocks, I say!

In the case of the guy on the train, there was no middle ground to be reached and once we’d established that I was going to burn in eternal hellfire for being a lady who likes the ladies, he moved on to the next sucker on the train. However, I stand by my point: I believe that we need to have intellectual debates, no matter how inflammatory, risqué, or controversial the topic. We need to learn how to handle a difference of opinion, lifestyle, culture, and worldview because we’re always going to rub shoulders with people who are different to ourselves. It’s through these eye-opening conversations that we learn to respect these differences, rather than fear them. And when we remove that virulent fear, we eliminate the prejudice that people of different ethnicities, religions, cultures, and agendas are not the same as us and are therefore to be avoided.

Issues of race are huge here in South Africa, given our tumultuous history of racial discrimination and segregation. And we live in such a guilt-stricken society that, as a white person, I’m just one poorly chosen word away from being strung up by my intestines for being racist. As such, many white people avoid conversations about race and culture, when, I believe, they are pivotal to bringing about the empathy we all need to get along better.

We – everyone – should be able to talk about race, culture, language, and ethnicity as a way to broaden our understanding of each other. The problem is, there is a pervasive misconception that talking about these things shines an unwanted spotlight on them and when you do that you’re being racist.

To compound the problem, most people simply don’t know how to conduct themselves in an intellectual debate. What begins as a civil conversation can end up in nuclear fallout faster than you can say “white privilege” and this is yet another reason why we all avoid discussing these topics.

No longer!

Stop walking around on eggshells and start learning about the peoples, societies, and cultures that colour this beautiful world we live in. Engage in captivating conversation and debate with anyone and everyone, whether it’s about sports, race, religion, culture, politics, or sex. But, before you do, you’ve got to learn the rules of engagement and learn them well. With great knowledge comes the responsibility to conduct yourself respectfully and in a mature, intellectual manner.

Rule # 1: stop trying to take over the world

Dr Evil finger in mouth

Acknowledge and respect that there is, and probably will remain, a difference of opinion or worldview after your conversation. You are not Adolf Hitler on a conquest to take over the western world, nor are you going to score points for converting people to your beliefs (even if you are a Jehovah Witness).

What you need to accept is that you’re entering into this conversation to expand your understanding and appreciation for those outside of your belief system. Whether you’re talking about sports, politics, religion, sex, or a myriad of other controversial topics, you’re doing it to become a more empathetic human being. If this is not the final prize for both people engaged in a debate and if you can see that your opponent is unwilling to parry, then bow out with grace. They’ll be far more frustrated by your disinterest in engaging them than by any volley of intellectual missiles you can send their way.

Rule # 2: mind your f***ing words, G** damn it!


Don’t swear, don’t insult, don’t undermine, and don’t make disparaging comments about your opponent’s beliefs or opinions. An intellectual debate is one that is free of hurtful, inflammatory language. It’s about using words to communicate ideas. If you find yourself getting frustrated, it can only be for one of three reasons:

ONE: You’re failing to articulate your ideas, which means you need to do a little more introspection. You need to excavate the layers of your worldview, scrutinize its various dinosaur bones and then put it all back together in a coherent order. It’s only once you deeply understand your own worldview that you can defend and substantiate it in a battle of the intellects. If you’re flummoxed by vocabulary – or your lack thereof – read more or else you handicap yourself with a deficient verbal artillery.

TWO: Your opponent is breaking Rule # 2 of having an intellectual conversation and is fighting ugly. If this is the case, point wildly over his or her shoulder and scream, “Oh my God, is that Lady Gaga?” and then run for the hills.

THREE: You’re being “that guy”. Stop it immediately and go home.

Rule # 3: acknowledge your opponent’s point

The reason arguments often end in wrathful yelling is because one person is convinced that the other isn’t listening to them or acknowledging their point of view. It doesn’t matter whether you strictly agree with your opponent or not, even if that opponent is your girlfriend, what matters is that you show them the respect of listening to and acknowledging their point.

There is but one caveat to this whole business: you’ve got to mean it. A debate can only progress if you and your opponent are constantly building upon and fleshing out your arguments. You’ve got to listen to what they say and if you disagree, say so and say why. If your opponent doesn’t feel like you’ve heard their point, they’re going to reiterate it again and again, possibly getting louder and more high-pitched with each repetition. If you sense this frustration, don’t hesitate to say, “I’ve heard you, I understand what you’re saying, and I agree to a certain extent, etc.”

Then you throw down your “BUT” harder than Nicki Minaj in her Anaconda music video.

Just remember, having a debate is not about winning. Unless, of course, you’re actually participating in some kind of competition, defending a client in court, are a politician with an agenda, or your boyfriend is being an ass again. However, if you’re engaging someone in a debate for the sake of having an interesting and thrilling conversation, stop obsessing about winning and focus on the next point.

Rule # 4: allow yourself to be educated

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In many places, debate is regarded as sport. Some people manage to craft lucrative careers out of being professional debaters. These people usually end up in politics or courtrooms, as I previously stated. In your case, you’re utilising debate to expand your mental horizons, enjoy the thrill of intellectual stimulation, and possibly even establish a meaningful connection with the person you’re talking to. Don’t turn your conversation into a roaring soliloquy, a one-sided litany, or brain-numbing monologue. Listen to what your opponent has to say and if they reveal information you’ve never considered before, allow yourself to discovery and be educated.

I often step back from the throes of debate and exclaim, “Oh wow, I never considered that before” or “You know what? You’re right.” It’s no deceptive ploy, either. I mean it and it has a wonderful calming effect on my opponent who realizes that I’m not actually at war with them. It’ll mean a lot to your opponent if they feel they’ve actually taught you something and they’ll be far more likely to listen to what you have to say if they feel listened to.

Rule # 5: be dexterous and parry with your partner

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Repeating the same point of view over and over again will not increase your chances of being heard. If your opponent doesn’t yield to your reasoning, try a different tack and approach the debate from a different angle, using different reasoning. Be dexterous and think on your feet. Through all of this, however, you’ve got to establish the root of the disagreement and if there is no common ground to be found – as will frequently be the case – move on. Agree to disagree or if that fails, order another drink and be on your merry way.

I once locked swords with a man, let’s call him John, over issues of sexuality. John masqueraded as devoutly Christian and his tired point was that being gay is against God’s will. It didn’t take me long to realise we would never get anywhere with any kind of debate. John didn’t feel strongly about homosexuality because of his faith; his feelings were motivated by personal prejudice and bigotry. And so, I pivoted my point to highlight that fact. After all, if he cared that much about sinning, he wouldn’t have been pounding back tequila at a seedy bar and hitting shamelessly on women. His solid gold retort perfectly highlighted my point: “Being gay is disgusting.”

Thereafter, I would have sooner shared genitals with a 15th Century bar wench than the table I was sitting at with that vapid twit, so I wandered off to the bar and ordered a cranberry and vodka. I then kissed a girl and liked it.

So you see, try to change your footing and if there is no common ground to be found, agree to disagree and move on.

Rule # 6: realize when to quit

rolling eyes.jpg

I had to walk away from my debate with John because I realised it was time to quit. And I’ll tell you this: it is exceptionally difficult to find people who will entertain a roaring debate without wanting to garrote you at its crescendo. The people who are smart, objective, and confident enough in their opinions to do so are very few and far between, so if you sense the conversation going south (and not in a sexy way), back off. If your opponent starts getting sensitive, uncomfortable, or even aggressive, change the subject or walk away. Realise when to quit and be civilised and conciliatory about it.

Class dismissed: your take-home message

Most of the science-themed topics I cover in my book, Why? Because Science! aren’t exactly inflammatory and won’t get you withering looks from the person you’re trying to engage. Some of them, however, will. Scientology, religion, evolution, homosexuality, astrology, and the existence of a spiritual realm are all subjects that many people feel passionate about and as good as passion is in the bedroom, it too often trips up a civilised conversation, sending it south quicker than the Rand after President Jacob Zuma fires another finance minister. This is where tact and the afore-mentioned rules of intellectual debate should serve you well.

This doesn’t guarantee that your opponent will employ the same degree of diplomacy. In fact, in all likelihood, you’ll find it exceedingly difficult to find people willing to discuss such provocative and potentially incendiary subjects. However, the more you broach these subjects and the better you handle these conversations, the more willing people will become to engage in intellectual debate. Like a case of the clap in a fraternity house, this willingness can spread from one person to the next, infecting the world with a sharper appetite for debate, a higher threshold of tolerance, and a healthier sense of humour.

It’s in your power to combat ignorance. Do it responsibly, compassionately, and with sweeping conversations about the world in all its microscopic and macroscopic beauty.


If you enjoyed this read, you’ll love the book Why? Because Science! Now for only $3.41 on Amazon. Go and get you some!


Author: Thea Beckman

Canadian born and South African raised, Thea Beckman AKA Wander Woman Thea, is an experienced travel, food, and wine writer and (amateur) photographer with a devastating love of all of the above. She is a travel bug, a bookworm, and mildly alarmed by how many arthropods she can be at once. When she’s not writing for a living and for pleasure, she enjoys bird-watching, reading, drinking wine, cooking, and SHORT walks on the beach because the summer southeasterly winds in Cape Town are a real bitch. Thea is the author of the book “Why? Because Science!” Facebook @WanderWomanThea Instagram @wander_woman_thea

13 thoughts on “How to Have an Intellectual Conversation”

  1. If I’m going to have a conversation with someone who’s really entrenched in their mindset, I’ll avoid doing it unless there are other people around. Because I’m not expecting to change the mind of the preacher, the discussion is for the benefit of the other people around, listening in. It’s the same reason why I sometimes will engage them online, it’s not for their benefit, it’s for the lurkers.


  2. At a time when homosexuality was less acceptable than now I simply accepted folks for who they were—not what or how they were. I sometimes enjoyed the company of ‘gays’ because they were frequently more intelligent (clever, witty …) and didn’t pound on all the time about rugby, rugby, rugby, rugby, rugby, rugby. Not bring their way inclined myself I could still enjoy their company on a level footing.

    Behaviour seems be a form of ‘social conditioning’ and most folks seem to follow their/our programming like good little organic robots—and with no real education myself I still appreciate the company of the educated (gays/others) even when I have nothing to offer.

    As for what is normal behaviour? I leave that definition to others although deep down I regard homosexuality as aberrant. Not necessarily abhorrent: to each his own (oops, to all their own) (ya gotta be PC in yer wording these days) but aberrant as in a departure from the norm* . And if the truth were ever to come out we would find that many of the ‘Greats’ of history were/are gay.

    As for your three great pitfalls to avoid—politics, sports, and religion—I haven’t a clue about contemporary politics as in who is who is whom or what (nothing I can do about it); and where ‘sports’ are concerned likewise … but religion is too powerful to ignore. So like a good one I poke my finger into the hole in the dike as best I can …

    * What is the norm, though?


    1. Actually, homosexuality is perfectly natural. If you consult nature you’ll find that thousands of animal species regularly engage in homosexual behaviour – from copulating to full-on mating for life. Yes, it is aberrant in that it is a deviation from the ACCEPTED norm, but that’s a human construct anyway. Only humankind (humanunkind) deigns to accept and reject nature.

      I also poke my finger into the hole in the dike as best I can but for entirely salacious reasons 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely article. I used to follow few if not all rules listed by article and frankly speaking I was getting my mind aggregated due to lack of “two-way” traffic. But after reading this I guess I was doing something wrong. I love the idea of not converting others views. Btw one of the side effects of keep getting into frequent debate cast you off (from which I’m suffering) as “smart-ass” with whom no one one to discuss. Not all agree to intellect talks….


    1. I find that those who don’t like intellectual debates often lack the firepower to contend. Perhaps they don’t have the education/experience/worldview/confidence to tackle you. You don’t have to have an advanced education to engage in an intellectual debate, but you do have to know a fair bit about the subject and you do have to have given your opinion a lot of thought (so that you can argue it successfully!) I understand how you feel, though. I’m known as the resident “smart-ass” in my friendship circle 😉


  4. Excellent post! Our last full-time residence was in Utah, USA. We had a great time getting to know the local mega-religion, LDC (Mormons). A lot of the door-to-door kids are some of the most friendly people I have ever met. It is wonderful to sit and have an open discussion with them (we’re atheists and trained scientists). They come back every week and every week we demonstrate that we have done the “research” they asked us to do. In return, they are doing the same! It turned into one of the most fun and rewarding debates we have ever had. All it took was a group of people to respect and listen to one another. Their conversations didn’t change my mind, but it gave me new ideas and made me consider different perspectives.


    1. This is such a great story! Sorry that it’s taken me almost 5 months to respond. It really is all about perspective and making space in your own head and heart for other people’s worldviews. They don’t have to become your own but the mere appreciation that they exist (and respect for them) is the key to peace.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on NoelG and commented:
    There is so much about this I like. For example:
    “…having conversations with people isn’t about changing their minds, it’s about expanding your own. The tendency of human beings to force our opinions and worldviews onto others really cripples our ability to have intellectual conversations and debates with each other. We’re so focused on the end goal – on converting another’s opinions to our own – that we neglect to begin these conversations in the first place.”

    Again, it is one of those posts that having read it, I find myself still thinking about it weeks later. I am not sure I can ask for more from a post; other that it makes me laugh too. And it does that too!


    1. Ah, thanks Noel! That’s awesome to hear! This post was something that sat heavily on me until the day I wrote it. I think intellectual debate should be a compulsory subject at school. If we can become comfortable with a difference in opinion (religion, culture, etc.) in our childhood, we’d be a lot quicker to respect those differences and a lot less prone to judging them.


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