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 has occurred.

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 intellectually inept.

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 place.

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 been successful.

Don't set yourself up for failure by establishing a contest.

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.

The Environment:

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 laboratory experiments.

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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Wendy McElroy