Have you ever disagreed with someone on a political issue? Have you then had a conversation with them that didn’t seem to accomplish anything? Then you’ve come to the right place. This article is an informal guide on how to have productive conversations about political issues.

Conventionally, we might think that an argument with another person is productive when we successfully persuade them to accept our view. Since that rarely happens, we can instead look at an argument as an opportunity to work with the other person to figure out why we disagree. Successfully arriving at a single principled point of disagreement, usually leaves both parties both satisfied and wiser.

A good way to accomplish this is to push the conversation in the direction of the Abstract rather than the Concrete. To demonstrate this, let’s use the example of a disagreement about whether reservations are justified (government-mandated reservations of seats in educational institutions for students of certain castes). Below is a non-exhaustive sample of different arguments on either side of the issue. Starting from the center of the table, the arguments become more abstract as we move upwards and more concrete as we move downwards.



Common Themes


The primary goal of society should be the pursuit of knowledge and technological advancement to benefit humanity, which is best achieved when the most skilled and competent individuals (even if they are also the most privileged) get the best opportunities.

Rights, justice, what society should aim for

Each individual has a right to not be unjustly disadvantaged by discrimination in seeking tickets to a better life (education). So, reservations are justified to the extent that they level the playing field.

Academic excellence and technical competence should be goals of the government because it will help institutions compete globally and produce skilled employees who will contribute to economic development.

The appropriate role of government

Compensating members of certain caste groups to rectify current inequalities that are linked to the legacy of historical injustices should be a goal of the government.

The purpose of academic institutions is to achieve academic excellence and technical competence and so they must select the best possible students.

The purpose of institutions

Academic institutions must also contribute towards social goals.

Every student has the right to admission to the best possible academic institution according to their performance in qualifying examinations.


The initial disagreement

The selection process must take into account other factors such as the larger purpose of the institution and its role in society.

Reservations may reinforce caste prejudices that already exist.

Immediate Consequences

It will give an immediate path of upward mobility for students of disadvantaged castes.

Reservations may over time reinforce caste identities.

Later consequences

Reservations would over time increase the visibility of successful people from disadvantaged castes who might serve as role models.

Reservations may entrench the power of political parties based on caste-identity. Politics based on group identities has a divisive effect on society and is an obstacle to true democratic politics based on individual preferences. As long as reservations exist there will continue to be caste-based interest groups working to take advantage of them.

Ideological arguments

The persistence of severe caste-based discrimination and exclusion even to this day, means that any policy that provides upward mobility to individuals from disadvantaged castes is justified because it takes us one step closer to there being people in power motivated enough to work towards solving the problem.


We can see that the more abstract the argument, the clearer the source of the disagreement becomes. Most political disagreements are, at their core, differences between ideals that individuals hold about what rights citizens must have and what a just society looks like, and what the relationship between citizens, government and society ought to be like to achieve this.

What about the other side? Why are concrete arguments not as productive? If we look the arguments labelled “Ideological arguments” (for lack of a better phrase), we see that they each have a single long-term goal that outweighs all other considerations. They involve many variables and depend heavily on future possibilities and speculation.

These qualities do not make them bad arguments; in fact, most successful social movements have been driven by ideological arguments. However they do make these arguments harder to engage with: in this case, the two arguments differ on many counts and accept implicit trade-offs between a number of different ideals. It becomes harder to pin down a single point of difference and so the conversation proceeds endlessly until both parties give up.

Bottom line

Steer the conversation towards abstract principles rather than concrete consequences so that you can identify the root of the disagreement and leave the conversation satisfied.

Bonus Content

Traps to avoid: Law and the Constitution

When legality or constitutionality of a policy or government action is brought up in the middle of a conversation, it usually takes the conversation onto to a long detour from which it returns only after it is acknowledged that not everything that is legal or constitutional is just, and unjust laws must be changed. If you can quickly resolve this as soon as it is brought up, you can save everyone a lot of time.