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Rapoport’s Rules: How to Criticise Constructively

Refutation is the highest form of dissent. At least according to Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement. Simply explain to your opponents where their reasoning went wrong and trust they will see the errors of their ways. If only it were that simple. We often seem to confuse disagreement with being persuasive. If persuasion is your goal, you should know about Rapoport’s Rules and its close relative, the four-step refutation method. Here’s how you can use it to deescalate tense arguments and make your counterpart more receptive to criticism.

What Are Rapoport’s Rules?

Rapoport’s Rules, also known as Dennett’s Rules, is a list of four guidelines that detail how to interpret arguments charitably and criticise constructively. The concept was coined by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in his book Intuition Pumps. Dennett acknowledged our proclivity to misinterpret and attack a counterpart’s argument instead of engaging meaningfully with what was actually said. Rapoport’s Rules are his preferred solution:

The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  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.

In essence, Rapoport’s Rules intend to encourage productive and civil discourse. They’re a form of steelmanning, the wilful strengthening of an opponent’s position in order to understand it better. Only Dennett’s concept is closely related to the traditional four-step refutation process.

What Is the Four-Step Refutation Process?

The four-step refutation is a common method of disproving a counterpart’s argument:

  1. Identify the claim you’re trying to refute (You said…)
  2. Make your counterclaim (But I think…)
  3. Provide supporting evidence and (Because…)
  4. Sum up your argument (Therefore…).

It’s a great template that forces the speaker to be very specific about what aspect of an argument they consider to be wrong or false. But let’s imagine ourselves at the receiving end of a refutation. What’s more likely? That upon marvelling at the ironcladness of our opponent’s counterargument, we rejoice and change our minds? Or that we cling to our beliefs and defend them as if they were valuable possessions?

The first step is where the Four-Step Refutation can already fall apart. Who is to say that we identified a claim our counterpart actually made? How can we know we didn’t strawman the statement we’re about to refute? If we truly care about constructive disagreement, we don’t want to misrepresent our counterpart’s argument. This is where Rapoport’s Rules come in.

How to Apply Rapoport’s Rules

Let’s break Rapoport’s Rules down to see what they look like applied in practice and how they can make criticism more constructive.

Rule #1: Restate the Position

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.”

At first glance, rule number one seems similar to the initial step of a formal refutation. But there’s a crucial difference. Abiding by it, we don’t get away with merely regurgitating what was said or with picking a quote. We’re now compelled to fully understand our opponent’s point of view and interpret it most charitably. What’s more, it is implied that we cannot proceed until our counterparts wholeheartedly agree with our characterisation of their position.

If done right, we’ve made the first step to de-escalate our conversation from adversarial to collaborative. It’s what negotiation expert Chris Voss calls tactical empathy. By seeing the world through our counterparts’ eyes, we make them feel understood. They think Friends was better than Seinfeld and you disagree? Make the best case for Rachel and Chandler on their behalf until they utter the magic words: “That’s right.”

The more fundamental the disagreement, the more difficult it will be for us to represent our opponent’s position. But it’s important to note: Re-expressing someone’s viewpoints does not mean we agree with them. Don’t worry, you’re not denouncing Seinfeld by making the case for Friends.

Rule #2: Find Common Ground

You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

Rapoport’s second rule goes beyond restating our opponent’s contentious position. Here, the idea is to find common ground. Bringing up points of agreement builds further trust since we’re demonstrating our good judgement on other issues our counterpart cares about. Now there’s something that connects us both and the point of disagreement is no longer the one big issue that defines our relationship.

Our counterpart loves well-written sitcoms? So do we. He or she dislikes most of the current comedy writing? So do we. The more specific or special those commonalities are, the better. With whom are you more likely to build rapport? With someone who agrees with you that Yellow Water in Australia’s Kakadu National Park is stunning at sunrise? Or someone who also happens to like food? But we’re not done yet.

Rule #3: Reflect on Lessons Learned

You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

Rapoport’s Rule number three sets the standard even higher. Now we’re looking into anything we have learned from reading or listening to our counterparts. Before applying Rapoport’s Rules, we thought in terms of winning or losing an argument. By sharing our lessons learned, the conversation is framed as a learning experience.

As much as we may disagree with something they wrote or said, there’s always some kernel of truth in there. Some tiny pieces of information we didn’t know before. You never knew that Friends made more money. Even though Seinfeld had the better ratings.

You may have noticed, the contentious position from the beginning has been somewhat relegated to the background. Instead of nitpicking the argument, we focused on what unites us and demonstrated that we can indeed be persuaded by things they said. That changes with rule number four.

Rule #4: Make Your Counterargument

Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

To get to this point, we’ve restated our counterpart’s argument in the most charitable way. We’ve explored what we both agree on. And we’ve recognised our opponent’s contributions to our knowledge. Once we’ve completed those steps, rule four finally allows us to level our criticism. Or as investor Charlie Munger put it, we’ve “earned the right to disagree with them”.

The only thing is: Whatever rebuttal or condemnation we had in mind originally, we probably have to rethink entirely. Maybe the previous steps have even rendered our point mute. But if we do disagree, we can be much more confident that our criticism will not fall on deaf ears due to the level of trust and rapport we’ve built.

Closing Thoughts

As valuable as formalised methods such as the four-step refutation are, facts and logic alone have hardly ever convinced someone. The game of persuasion is won at the level of emotions and relationships. In other words, by seeing the world through the eyes of our counterparts as practised in debate games such as Spectrum Street Epistemology.

In essence, Rapoport’s Rules set high standards for figuring out what it even is we disagree with or criticise. That said, I’m the first to admit that it’s a rather cumbersome method. Unless you’re training to pass the Ideological Turing Test, it probably works best in a written format or during slow-paced conversations and debates.

But it also goes to show how hard civil disagreement really is. The more heated the argument, the less receptive to reason both parties are. Rapoport’s Rules can cut through this positive feedback loop. To the very least, they serve as a reminder that if we must criticise, we should at least criticise a position our opponent actually holds.