Arguing -- the Other Side of Listening
To be absolutely clear on what I mean by words like 'argue'
and 'argument', allow me to repeat myself. By 'argue' I mean a
verbal exchange between two or more people which involves a
disagreement. An 'argument' is a purposeful intellectual exchange between people who disagree and base their disagreement on
evidence. The purpose of a good argument is to resolve whatever
conflict exists or, at least, to reach an understanding of where
the irresolvable difference lies.
The ideal argument is a co-operative venture, in which both
people attempt to arrive at the truth. This is far from the view
of arguments many of us have, or of the view of arguing upheld by
our society. For most of us, arguments are loud shrill exchanges, in which there are winners and losers. As in physical
contests, the winner of such an argument is assumed to be the
intellectual victor when, actually, nothing much intellectual
To a large extent, we live in an anti-intellectual culture
which places a low value on reasoning. Yet we also live in a
culture where, to use Henry David Thoreau's phrase, most of us
are living lives of quiet desperation. We are cut off from what
most philosophers throughout the ages have considered to be our
defining characteristic as human beings: the ability to reason.
No wonder the art of arguing has been reduced to a slugfest in
which you pummel an opponent into defeat.
This is a strange way to view arguments. After all, the
so-called 'loser' is the one who actually benefits the most from
the exchange. Presumably, the 'loser' is the one who gained
knowledge and eliminated an error so that his beliefs are more
solid than before. The 'winner' may well walk away from the
argument no richer -- with no more information or insight -- than
when she entered it.
Being good at arguing doesn't mean never having to concede a
point, or never losing the exchange. Quite the opposite. A
skilled arguer will always admit when she is wrong, and will
listen closely to opposing viewpoints, not merely to detect their
flaws but to honestly evaluate them. Arguing well means respecting reason and evidence.
The ensuing two chapters address the two basic categories
of argument that you are most likely to encounter: one conducted
with good will on both sides; and, one conducted with good will
only on your side. Being reasonable requires you admit errors,
but intellectual self-esteem requires you to stand up for
yourself. These two aspects of arguing are not in conflict with
each other, as many people believe. To admit an error or
to acknowledge the worth of another person's argument is not a
sign of intellectual weakness or of losing the argument. It is a
sign of intellectual confidence and honesty.
Having defined what I mean by 'argument' and having
introduced the two basic contexts in which you are likely to
argue, one last step remains....
Preparing to Argue
A lot of people cause themselves headaches and grief by
getting into conversations that, upon reflection, they know
should have been avoided. They get into arguments they cannot win
and in which nothing can be accomplished. They go away with
pounding temples or an upset stomach, and a lurking sense of
unease. There are all sorts of ways that people do harm to themselves, because they go away with a bad self-image as being
In preparing to argue -- and, perhaps, as an argument com-
mences -- the most important question you can ask yourself is
'what do I want out of this exchange?' Stop for a second and ask
yourself what you expect to accomplish from this discussion.
Instead of taking a 'what the hell' attitude and plunging
thoughtlessly in, clarify to yourself why you are there, why you
are talking to this particular person.
It may well be that the discussion is 'for the hell of
it.' If so, make that purpose clear to yourself. Afterward,
reflect on whether you actually did enjoy the exchange and why,
or why not. Maybe your goal was to acquire information. Did you
get the data you wished? If not, why not? It could be that the
argument deteriorated into a bitter quarrel that defeated your
original purpose. It could be that you wished to convince the
other person, or to show him to be a fool in front of a third
party. Your purpose in arguing will define how you approach the
exchange and the point at which you have been successful and, so,
should stop talking.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish in any one
intellectual encounter. And be specific about your goal. Perhaps you want to learn what the other person's position is.
Perhaps you want to practice a specific technique -- e.g. the
Socratic method of posing probing questions. Or perhaps you want
to plant a solitary seed of doubt in the other person's mind.
Here are some additional principles and techniques I have
used to good advantage in preparing to argue and in reflecting
upon arguments which left me unsatisfied with myself. I have
phrased them in the form of questions:
1. How important to me is it to convince the other person?
Too often the unacknowledged and unconscious goal of arguing is to convince the other person that he is wrong and you are
right. The unstated goal is 'to win' the argument. This may be an
unavoidable consequence of living in a highly competitive society. But focusing on the goal of winning, of convincing the other
person, is self-destructive because other people's reactions are
not under your control.
No matter how effective or elegant your arguments may be,
there are situations in which you will never convince the person
to whom you are speaking. For example, the other person might
have an unshakeable emotional investment in what seems like a
purely intellectual position. In arguing with him, you are
confronting not only ideas but emotional barriers that an experienced psychiatrist would have difficulty scaling. For example,
you might be arguing for the theory of evolution with a fundamentalist Christian. Agreeing with any part of what you say would
constitute relinquishing his religion and, perhaps, the structure
of his social and family life which may be held together by a
common faith. The other person's emotional stake in his position
is too deep for any argument to convince him on the spot.
Or your 'failure' to convince the other person might be due
entirely to circumstances. You are at a crowded party, replete
with loud music, constant interruptions and with only ten minutes
before dinner to construct a complicated argument. It is destructive to enter the conversation with the presumption that, despite
these handicaps, if you are good enough you should be able to
convince the other person.
As ridiculous as it sounds in the above examples, convincing the other person is a common standard by which people judge
whether or not they have succeeded at an argument. Did I convert
someone from a Democrat to a Republican over coffee and a danish?
Did I make a fundamentalist accept the theory of evolution during
the elevator ride this morning? Did my feminist co-worker finally
admit affirmative action has failed? Using a conversion experience as a standard of success is unrealistic and only serves to
establish a contest of wills, rather than an exchange of ideas,
between you and the other person.
Successfully contradicting factual beliefs is a relatively
trivial matter, which happens constantly in conversation, but
changing deep seated beliefs is rare. For the very best of debaters, it happens once in every thousand arguments. To realize the
futility of this goal, ask yourself one question. What ten
minute discussion at a party would entirely destroy any significant conviction you hold?
Answering for myself: a single argument could never convert
me from a deeply held belief which I have tested over the course
of years. I don't care if the other person used unassailable
statistics, impressive flow charts, quotations from God, the
latest CNN poll...or naked brute force. I've arrived at my core
beliefs over a long period of time and through a complex process
of reasoning. They were not adopted capriciously; they won't be
abandoned in that manner either. BUT a ten minute conversation
can shake my confidence in a belief, and cause me to read and
think further about whether I am right or wrong. It can make me
doubt and question. After a long process of reflection, I may
come to agree with the person who planted the doubt in the first
Unfortunately, unless I make a point of tracking the other
person down to inform her of my conversion, she will never receive the acknowledgement that is due. Few people are willing to
go out of their way to offer such acknowledgement because it
means that, in the contest of wills, they are the losers.
Ironically, a consequence of trying so vigorously to convince the
other person is that she may be less willing to admit if you've
Don't set yourself up for failure by establishing a
Your first concern in an argument should be what is true
and false. Ideally, rather than being an opponent, the other
person should be involved in a co-operative effort.
2. Do circumstances favor the achievement of your goal?
What constitutes favorable circumstances will vary with the
goal of the exchange. If you simply wish to discover the other
person's point of view on a single issue, for instance, ten
minutes might be sufficient. If you want to debate the issue, ten
minutes will almost certainly not be enough time.
Whatever your goal, consider whether the circumstances
favor your achieving it.
Where will the argument be taking place? A loud crowded
party, where the other person will be drinking and greeting
friends as they pass by in the hallway? Or over a fifteen minute
coffee break at work, with half your co-workers listening? Or in
the car on the ride home, when the two of you have half an hour
of uninterrupted time?
When will the argument be taking place? In the morning over
your first cup of coffee, when you are groggy and usually a bit
irritable? After work in a bar, when you are more relaxed but not
necessarily more alert, due to two mugs of beer?
Choose an environment that promotes success.
Your Level of Skill:
How much experience do you have in arguing? How much does
the other person have? She may be a university professor who
lectures on a daily basis, or she may be used to giving presentations at work. you should not be surprised at being out maneu-
vered in the argument. This is not a reflection on the worth of
your position, merely on your skill at presenting it.
If your goal in arguing is to hone your skill, seek out
people who are better at arguing than you are. Watch how they
approach issues and blatantly steal some of their techniques.
Your Level of Knowledge:
How much do you know about the subject under discussion?
Are you comfortable arguing the issue with this particular person? If she is an expert on genetics and you've read only one
book in this area, you're probably not prepared to debate the
technical aspects of the subject. But the conversation might be a
shining opportunity to practice the skill of asking questions.
Or steer the conversation into areas where your level of
knowledge is more comparable, such as the ethics of genetic
experimentation. Although the other person may well have given
more thought to the issue, her reasoning on ethics is based
on the kind of observations about human nature that any person
can make. Moral issues -- e.g. is murder justified? -- are not
based on specialized information inaccessible to the average
person, as may be the case with scientific data revealed by
The Psychology of the Other Person:
Is this someone from whom you are ever likely to get whatever acknowledgement or response you wish? Is he able to argue
without becoming hostile or abusive?
Many people cannot recognize a good argument when they
hear one, let alone give you visibility for having presented an
issue well. Other people may be genuinely dazzled by your presentation and, yet, be totally unable to give interesting responses,
letting the 'argument' become a monologue on your part. Or they
may become defensive and hostile, creating an unpleasant scene.
Ask yourself: Is arguing with this person worth your while?
Can he offer what you wish to gain from the process?
3. What constitutes a satisfactory ending to the argument?
As previously discussed, the ideal ending for most of us is
for the other person to humbly acknowledge his error and salute
your brilliance. Short of this, what would satisfy you? Do you
wish this person's respect? Is your goal merely to have stated
your own position clearly?
When you have either accomplished your purpose or ascertained that it cannot be achieved, stop arguing. You don't have
to break off the conversation in a huff, or even stop talking to
the other person. But you should consciously cease pursuing the
goal, otherwise the discussion is likely to result in a headache.
Know when to end the argument.
>A Final Caveat
It is a great advantage to be comfortable with dissecting
an argument, which is often referred to as 'critical thinking'.
Although comfort may come only with practice, at least be
familiar with the process. It consists of finding and explicitly
stating the conclusion being offered, and then evaluating
the evidence or reasons supporting the conclusion. If the
argument is being presented in a confusing tangle, like a stream
of consciousness, you might interrupt the other person and
inquire, 'what is the bottom line? What is your conclusion?'
It is also useful to practice dissecting written arguments
because they allow you to dwell and puzzle over their structure
without the distractions of a verbal exchange. The excellent An
Introduction to Critical Thinking: A Beginner's Text in Logic by
W.H. Werkmeister will be extremely helpful in this regard.
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