Why should you argue?

When you think about arguments, you probably think of two spouses yelling at each other about something in the kitchen. That’s a shame, because arguments shouldn’t be thought of merely as a verbal means of attack.

Arguments were originally conceived as an efficient and rather gratifying way for two or more parties to come to a conclusion together. Of course, arguments can become passionate and heated, but that doesn’t mean they have to be solely associated with hatred and spite.

When arguments are approached with a different perspective, they become something more like a technique, like something that can be studied and improved.

In the book, Thank You for Arguing, author, Jay Heinrichs goes into detail on techniques that will not only make arguments more enjoyable; it will also make you a more formidable debater!

For many, the word “argument” conjures images of two people engaged in an angry screaming match. But rhetoric – the art of argumentation – is much more than that. In essence, it’s a nexus of skills and techniques that help the arguer persuade others, and its origins can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece.

But what bearing does it have on contemporary society?

Well, even today, rhetoric shapes the way we think, without our even noticing it. The ancient Greeks held the discipline of rhetoric in such high esteem that it was the foundation of all education. They practiced this skill by making arguments. And arguments continue to play a key role in all human dealings: they’re made in advertisements and political speeches, in books and blogs, in the kitchen and the courtroom.

A common misconception is that arguments ought to lead to an agreement. What they truly aim to achieve, however, is a consensus – that is, complete shared faith in the outcome. So the goal of an argument is not to win, but to win over your audience.

The psychology professor John Gottman led a study that made this idea clear. In observing couples in therapy, he found that the pairs who stayed married had just as many disputes as those who broke up. But there was a crucial difference: partners in long-lasting marriages took the opportunity to solve their issues and reach a shared outcome. In other words, they argued; the couples that broke up simply fought.

In other words, fighting, or being aggressive for the sake of winning an argument, isn’t a good way to argue. It won’t help you reach a consensus. So what’s a better way?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle might have suggested seduction, which he considered the strongest kind of argumentation. Seducing your audience, persuading them to want what you want, is the easiest way to reach a consensus.

When most people start an argument, their goal is to force their opponent to admit defeat. But if the argument ends without your opponent’s mind being changed, then there’s not much point of starting an argument in the first place.

Here’s how to avoid that:

First of all, don’t argue for argument’s sake. Only argue when it will help you reach your goal. For instance, you might be trying to persuade a friend to do something. If that’s the case, then achieving this end should be the benchmark for success. After all, the person who wins the argument isn’t necessarily the one who silences the other. The winner is he who reaches his goal.

Let’s say a police officer pulls you over for doing 51 mph in a 50 mph zone. As the officer approaches your car, you may be tempted to respond rudely. But remember: your intention is to avoid getting a ticket. It therefore makes more sense to apologize respectfully and play the role of the law-abiding citizen. This will satisfy the officer, who will feel his authority was respected, and, hopefully, you’ll dodge a pricey fine.

So keeping your goal in mind is crucial. Equally important is avoiding the common mistake of doing everything you can to score points. In other words, don’t just focus on proving yourself right. If your opponent is fixated on scoring points and trying to humiliate you, let him have at it. After all, acting like that won’t necessarily win him the argument.

For instance, do you remember the 2004 presidential debates between John Kerry and George W Bush? Polls said that Kerry’s logic won him the debates. But Bush won the election! That’s because, in the end, Bush’s seduction was more powerful than the points won by Kerry’s logic.

Everyone has gotten into an argument that simply couldn’t be resolved. Often, people don’t understand how such a stalemate could occur. But, in fact, there’s a simple explanation.

Many arguments end without resolution because the two arguers are debating two entirely different core issues. For instance, according to Aristotle, every argument is based on one of three possible issues:

First, there’s blame, as in, “Who used all the toilet paper?”

Second, there’s values, like, “Should the death penalty be legal?”

And, third, there’s choice, represented by questions like, “Does it make sense to relocate to China?”

But why is it important to identify the issue at hand before arguing?

Well, if you don’t, you’ll never reach a positive outcome. For instance, imagine a couple sitting in their living room. She wants to read her book and he wants to listen to the Rolling Stones.

Clearly, their desires are at odds and an argument is inevitable. That’s because the woman wants peace and quiet, an issue of choice. If she gets mad at the man for playing his music too loud, or starts criticizing his taste in music, the argument will shift to blame and values.

Then, as the discussion jumps from the quality of his favorite Rolling Stones record to the thickness of the apartment walls, the real issue – music vs. silence – will be forgotten.

But it’s possible to move beyond the stalemate by using the relevant tense. For instance, in the prior example, the blame issue refers to the past: “You turned up the stereo when you knew I wanted to read!” – and the values issue is set in the present: “You’re only against the Stones because you prefer The Beatles!” If the couple instead focussed on the future, for example, by the woman saying “Would it be better if I turned it down or played something else?”, it focuses the argument on choice, thereby better enabling a resolution.

So besides knowing the core issues and staying focused on whichever one is relevant to the argument at hand, you can solve many intractable arguments by simply speaking in a common tense.

Do you know Aristotle’s three essential tools of persuasion?

There’s logos, or argument by logic; pathos, or argument by emotion; and ethos, also known as argument by character, a strategy that relies on disputing the reputation and trustworthiness of your opponent.

Here’s how the first two work:

Logos is based on a series of techniques that employ structured reasoning, instead of brute force, to persuade your audience. One of these techniques, concession, is to agree with your opponent before shooting him down with a sharp reply.

So, say you’re in a political debate with a friend and are trying to get through the conversation without disagreement, hoping to avoid an escalation. But then your friend starts arguing that the world would be safer if there was more NSA surveillance of communication. You might concede that, yes, a safer world is good for everyone. But then you could get your shot in by asking whether he’d truly feel safer living in an Orwellian environment, where the government could watch his every move.

And pathos?

Pathos, the root of the Greek word for “sympathy,” is about aligning yourself with your audience’s feelings. After all, a classic argumentative error is attempting to force the other arguer to change his feelings, like telling a co-worker to cheer up after his salary was cut.

If you used pathos in this scenario you would instead be sad with your colleague. This will get him to sympathize with you and, in turn, he will be more open to your thoughts.

Check out my related post: How to win an argument?

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