Thinking about Ideas as a System: Effective Communication

Guidelines for a culture where the right ideas thrive

6 min readMar 8, 2023


  • Be kind
  • Ask questions
  • Challenge things
  • Debate
  • Avoid bullshit
  • Be specific
  • Be public

Be Kind

The most important thing is to be kind. This is easy to understand. When people are kind to us, we feel good interacting with them. When people are nasty to us, we don’t feel good interacting with them. The same goes the other way. When we are kind to people, they feel good interacting with us. When we are nasty to people, they don’t feel good interacting with us.

When you communicate with someone, you should make an effort to make your communication likable to that person. Generally speaking, it is more important to be kind, than it is to be right.

Ask Questions

If you believe there is an issue with something, the incorrect way to communicate that issue is to tell the other person about your issue. The correct way is by asking questions.

It’s valuable to consider Chesteron’s Fence here:

A core component of making great decisions is understanding the rationale behind previous decisions. If we don’t understand how we got here, we run the risk of making things much worse.

Direct confrontation is never the correct way. That is the way animals interact with each other. As human beings, we can do better. We are not beasts of the wilderness.

It may seem efficient to point out other people’s weaknesses, but that is also mistaken. Anyone can find other people’s mistakes and shortcomings, but that is merely a reflection of the way one sees oneself. So whenever you have negative thoughts about others, be very careful, your mind is now in the grip of destructive forces. Do not speak or otherwise act under such influence.

Challenge Things

It is oftentimes important to be able to effectively challenge things. The primary method to do this is called challenging through questions. The method has some resemblance with reductio ad absurdum, a means by which a particular view is proven wrong without taking an opposing position, or for that matter, any position at all.

So how does one challenge through questions?

The particular thing to be challenged is challenged through a series of questions, starting from those that focus on ensuring that one has all the required information about the given topic.

Again, consider Chesteron’s Fence here:

A core component of making great decisions is understanding the rationale behind previous decisions. If we don’t understand how we got here, we run the risk of making things much worse.”

You might look at something and think “this is wrong”, but upon the emergence of such a thought, can you know it to be so? How do you know that a particular thing is not right, at the moment when you think it is not right?

First and foremost, very few things are categorical objective truths where right and wrong can be established clearly. In fact, whenever there is an appearance of a thing, that thing is necessarily relative. If you can understand that things appear due to causes and conditions — and not for example due to intrinsic existence — you will then also understand how such things are relative. It will then not be hard to see how mistaken it is to approach things through a premise such as “this is wrong”.

It is very important to understand relativity. What is pleasing to one person, is annoying to another person. What other people consider attractive, others might find neutral or repulsive. When one person wants more, the other wants less. And so on.

When a person works with something for a long time, it starts to feel like things are solid and objectively true. This is referred to as the expert mind. Such a mind is like an iron cast pot. Whatever is coming in, has no way to go out. It is an incredibly claustrophobic situation. Instead, one wants to cultivate the beginner's mind. Consider here the great contemporary Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki’s words:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s only few.

To understand the relativity of things is to have a beginner’s mind. A wise person will not say “this is like this”, but will say “this appears to be like this because all those other things appear to be like that”. The beginner’s mind is like a sieve, everything that comes in can also go out. Because of this, everything can come in.


Sometimes it’s useful to assume a position, and clearly articulate it with others. The primary method to do this is debating. The main objective of a debate is for the best idea to win. Consequently, some other position/s always lose.

Before engaging in a debate, consider the following questions carefully:

  • What is it exactly that my opponent is proposing?
  • Why is my opponent proposing it?
  • What are the merits of that position?

During the debate, make sure to follow these basic guidelines:

  • Let your opponent finish what they are saying
  • Once they have finished, have a think about why they hold that view
  • Keep going back to considering the possible merits of the view

Remember that a debate is not a competition between people. It is a meeting of two opposing — but oftentimes complementary — views. Debating is positive-sum; all parties win when the right ideas and views go forward.

Once, a wise man told me the story of four kinds of people. He said, there is one who knows and he knows that he knows, and that is a master. There is one who knows but does not know that he knows, and he is close, but still needs help. There is one who does not know and knows that he does not know, he is someone who is well on his way. Then there is one who does not know and does not know that he does not know, that is an idiot. Thinking in this way is very helpful.

Avoid Bullshit

If you focus too much on making your case, you risk diverging to bullshit. Bullshit is very attractive for making arguments; it takes an order of magnitude more time and effort to unwind bullshit arguments than it takes to make them. If not more.

Be Specific

Take time to deliberate what you will say before you say it. Avoid saying things that appear as a reaction to something someone else said.

Some useful things to keep in mind when formulating arguments:

  • Make sure to say things in a way that is clear to others
  • Say things as briefly and to the point as possible
  • Start by saying what you are going to talk about
  • Avoid sarcasm and other sources of ambiguity
  • If countering an argument, ensure to directly counter the given argument

One part of being specific has to do with staying on topic. Sometimes it's attractive, especially in long text-based correspondences such as GitHub issues, to divert from the original topic. Do not do that. It’s always better to remain focused on the original topic. If others divert, help reel them back into the topic at hand.

Be Public

It is a useful practice to structure communication channels in a manner that advocates public discourse. For example, having channels in Discord topically aligned with the way the project is structured on Github is very useful. For example, if there is a repository called Application-Backend in Github, then there should be a channel on Discord by that same name.

It is very important — and very valuable — to maximize the use of such topical channels in place of private messages or temporary group chats. Failing to do so leads to two important adverse effects:

  1. Private messages deprive others of the opportunity of learning from the content of the messages
  2. Private messages deprive ourselves of the opportunity of learning from the feedback our messages could receive from others

Neither of these outcomes is acceptable. The simple rule to keep in mind here is that if a message is topically relevant, it belongs to the public channels for all to see. Whenever you catch yourself not following this simple guideline (or catch someone else leading you to not follow it), the correct thing to do is to simply move that discussion to one of the topical channels.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article, I would love to hear your thoughts. 🧡

If you haven’t already, read the first part of this article series — Ideas as Cost — by clicking here.

Or read the second part of this article series — Evaluation of Ideas — by clicking here.




Worked with machine intelligence for 15 years, and built the interwebs for 25. Nothing here is my own.