Friday, January 27, 2012

The Art of Arguing

[Johnathan Clayborn]
This post took me a lot longer to write than I was hoping. I had been extra-busy these last two weeks with a lot of "life stuff".  But I digress, this article was intended to complete the trifecta of “Art of” articles complimenting the ones I already wrote on communication and listening.
Arguments, unfortunately, are one of those things that you will inevitably experience at some point in your life. Some arguments are small and mild with people politely agreeing to disagree, whereas other arguments are much more intense and violent with people screaming and yelling at each other and things getting thrown across the room.
While, admittedly, some arguments are sudden and seem to occur for no good reason, those of us with practice usually will be able to tell when an argument is just around the corner. Before the argument is going full swing there’s one question that you need to ask yourself: am I going to argue to be right, or am I going to argue to make a change?
This might seem like a strange question to ask; after all, what’s the point of arguing if not to win? But, these are very different approaches with very different results. Let’s talk about the first point, arguing to win for a moment. If you want to argue to win there are certain tactics and techniques that work better in this type of argument. First, be evasive and refuse to answer direct questions. Argue in circles and repeat your earlier statements a lot. This tends to really frustrate your opponents. Second; draw correlations where none exist and cite that as fact. For example; “you like red blue is clearly better so therefore you’re wrong about your understanding of that law”.  This is one sure-fire way to throw your opponents off-track. Another good tactic is personal insults. Many times when you deploy these little strategic gems in the middle of your heated argument the other person just gets so pissed off that the stop arguing altogether. There’s a very good chance that you’ll win the argument instantly. Lastly, use vague, non-specific, non-descript evidence to support your argument. For example, if someone asks you why you believe something, say “because” or if they ask you how you arrived at a particular conclusion you can say “well, it’s true”. And, if they ask you to walk them through your thought process you can deflect them by saying things like “what? You can’t use Google?” or “How are you supposed to figure it out for yourself if I teach you?” To top off this argument style, you can always claim that they’re using these tactics against you.
As you have probably guessed, that preceding paragraph was tongue-in-cheek deliberately. If you have ever been in an argument against someone who is using those strategies against you then you know full well how frustrating they can be. And if you haven’t been in that type of argument, give it time, it’ll happen sooner or later. The only upside to the approach listed above is that it’s guaranteed to make you win. It’s pretty much impossible to beat that style of argument. The down side; it’s cheap and dirty, you will probably lose friends over it, and people will want to avoid any conversations that have the potential for argument with you. There’s also the chance that you’ll be labeled as “pigheaded”, “stubborn”, “unrealistic” or any number of other similar names. So, if that’s not the best way to argue, what is?
Even though it’s difficult at times, you have to remember that the person that you’re arguing with has feelings too. The ultimate goal of any argument is to try to get the other person to see your point of view. In order for this to happen you need to keep them thinking objectively (or as objectively as possible). In order to keep them objective there are certain cardinal rules that you should never break in this type of argument.
Rule 1: NEVER question a person’s intelligence in an argument. Granted, you will sometimes be perplexed at how your opponent arrived at a conclusion that was so far off-base from yours. However, the second that you begin to question their intelligence they get angry and defensive. They also immediately discredit everything you say because you’re not smart enough to realize how smart they are. And, let’s not forget that the main point of the argument is that you want them to see your point of view. The only way that they can accomplish this is if they have enough reasoning power in their brain to follow your steps of logic. If you honestly believe them unintelligent then this process is not likely to happen and any argument would be a complete and utter exercise in futility.
Rule 2: NEVER resort to personal attacks or name-calling. Calling people nasty names like “right-winger” or “leftist” or “Republican” or “Democrat” will not serve your purpose. Yes, it’s entirely true that your opponent may be one of those things, but they don’t need you reminding them of that fact. Your goal in the argument is to change their thought process, not to belittle or demean their associations. Any attempts that you make to undermine their position by resorting to name calling will put them on the defensive and they will automatically discredit anything you say because you’re not smart enough to see how wrong you are. See how that works?
Rule 3: NEVER use the words “always” or “never” in an argument. No matter how well intentioned you may mean them to be, they typically come across as attacks, which puts the other person on the defensive. Not, not only are they discrediting everything you say because you’re not smart enough to perceive reality, but they’re not even listening to you because they trying to prove that you’re wrong. For example; “you never help me clean around the house!” …”that’s not true, I did the dishes on Saturday and I did the laundry on Thursday, and I cleaned a bathroom on Tuesday”. Now, instead of arguing about what’s important; that you feel that you need more help around the house, you’re going to spend the next 45-60 minutes arguing over the finer nuances of how often who does what, which is really kind of trivial in the long run.
Rule 4: NEVER approach the situation with the viewpoint that your opinion is superior to theirs, especially just because it’s your opinion. To do so would anger them and they would automatically discredit you because you’re too stupid to see how right they are.
Rule 5: Stay focused on your point and stick to the facts. Okay, you hate Obama, I get it. But why? “because he’s an evil President who wants to destroy the American People” is not a valid argument. That’s an example of the first type of argument. I don’t bear Obama any great love, but, like most things in like I realize that he’s not completely evil. But, unlike some of the other people who argue the point, I can cite the reasons why I don’t particularly care for Obama. I can cite dates, legislative bills, policies, and so on. My arguments are vague or ambiguous, they’re specific and to the point. Some of my friends love Obama and we agree to disagree, but I have great respect for their ability to back up their argument with facts. It’s entirely possible that when presented with exactly the same data people will draw different interpretations from that same data. Part of this is because as people we have vastly different moral and ethical values and different principals and ideologies that we hold dear. We tend to latch onto those things that matter to us and ignore the rest. A perfect example of this is a phenomenon that I call “Holy Text Syndrome”. (I’m sure that there’s an actual scientific name for it, and I guess you could classify it as confirmation bias, but this tends to prove the point rather markedly).  To demonstrate HTS in action gather a group of people in a room together. Read them a passage from the Bible without any further explanation, connotation or voice inflection. Then, ask the people individually what the passage was about. I can pretty much guarantee that you will get more than one answer. In fact, depending on the size of the group you may get as many as 10 different answers. It’s part of human nature to inject our own thoughts and feelings and opinions into what we read (which is part of the problem with people misunderstanding text messages and emails so often). The key to these arguments isn’t so much the fact that you’re right and they’re wrong so much as it is that you want to reframe how they think about the topic. Their perception of the issue is what’s driving their opinion, their belief and everything else behind their logic. This is true even for the most pragmatic, factual people too.
Rule 6: If you are trying arguing to make a change for the better you have to walk into the argument embracing the possibility that you may be wrong and you have to be open-minded enough to realize that. I will readily admit that although I have utterly destroyed the arguments of several people on certain topics, there are other topics where I have presented my opinions based on the facts as I interpret them and then someone else has presented me with information or an idea that I have not considered before and I ended up conceding my argument. If you’re not prepared to concede your point if you know that the other person may be right, then you probably shouldn’t even bother as it will simply devolve into a shouting match.
Tip: In general there is kind of a scale for how risky arguments can be. When discussing topics like what color to paint the walls, or what to eat for dinner the risks are generally fairly low. Most people don’t have a whole lot invested in that type of decision. However, as you move up the ladder and talk about topics like religion, politics, childrearing or treatment of animals, things tend to get very heated, very quickly. It’s difficult to separate out your emotions from your opinions, but it’s a necessary point of making a good argument. If you can’t do it then the argument will devolve into a shouting match and it isn’t worth arguing in the first place.
Well, dear readers, I hope that I have sufficiently entertained you with my thoughts on arguments.  My strongest piece of advice on arguing, especially when arguing with close friends or family members; if you feel yourself about to go over the brink and lose your cool, it’s better to just walk away. Even though you may say things out of anger and you may not mean them, and you may forget what you have said in a few days, I promise you, the other person will remember. I can recall every nasty, no-good name or statement that has ever been said to me in an argument, especially when they were said by people who cared about me. Good luck and happy arguing! …well, as much fun as you can have arguing anyway.

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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.