I consider verbal interaction a cousin to physical interaction. Of course, there are lots of different kinds of physical interaction — greetings, intimacy, rough-housing, fighting — just as there are different kinds of verbal interaction. And just as you don’t hip toss or armbar everyone who comes into physical contact with you, your approach to verbal interaction is also going to be varied.
I look at verbal interaction — debate, discussion, arguments, etc. — like a mental martial art. It’s the basis behind Loricism, and I would argue that learning it is even more important than learning physical self-defense, and I’m a martial artist. My reasoning for this comes from a passage in Aristotle’s Rhetoric:
Again, it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.
I interpret this to mean that people spend a lifetime learning to defend themselves from a physical attack that may never happen, and almost no time learning to defend themselves against mental attacks that happen multiple times a day. Most people only get a few classes in philosophy and communication (speech, debate, etc.) in their lifetime, if that. Imagine if you only took a couple semesters of karate or judo or boxing. Are you going to be a pro at it?
Look, all I’m saying is it’s important. Critical thinking and verbal communication ought to be taught everywhere, and regularly. For years. Enough about that, though. Now that I’ve acquainted you with my frame of mind when I approach this subject, we can begin to notice some similarities between arguments (these tricks will especially work in online discussions) and martial arts.
One Vital Difference Worth Noting
With any kind of physical altercation, there are ways of ending the thing definitively. You can destroy someone, for example — outmatch them technically or athletically — and the fight is clearly over. They won’t be able to continue. With discussions and arguments, this is not the case. You can be the best debater in the world and utterly annihilate someone and they can keep coming indefinitely (assuming you don’t block them or something). With physical self-defense, even the untrained person can recognize that you are the victor. This is not always the case with arguments. Many people will be oblivious to certain techniques, and they might even believe you are being schooled.
Because of this, the first thing to remember — the most important tool in your arsenal — is that you can leave the interaction at any time. You don’t have to stick around. You are under no obligation to engage anyone. This is not always an option in physical situations. So keep that in mind from this point forward.
Beginners Are Sometimes More Dangerous
Ask any black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and they’ll tell you it is far safer to grapple those with more experience than it is to grapple with newbies. This is because inexperienced partners are unpredictable and unaccustomed to safe training methods. They are more likely to hurt themselves and you. The same is true of people who don’t know how to have a reasonable discussion. You will get sucked into a black hole and waste enormous amounts of energy if you’re not paying attention.
The key is to remain detached. Forget about trying to win all the time. Treat these people the same way a black belt would treat a beginner training partner. Your goal is not to beat them down so they never want to return; you should be trying to teach them. If you truly want to help them open their mind, you cannot be on the offense the whole time or they will simply become further entrenched in their own beliefs. You can’t pound them to death with facts and statistics or you will find yourself facing a case of the Backfire Effect.
You can avoid this by changing your mindset about the interaction. Don’t think of it as a debate or an argument, but a discussion. You aren’t trying to win, you are exchanging information, thoughts, ideas. If you want to become a “black belt” at discussion, you must remain composed. A black belt in jiu-jitsu will carefully control the situation. He or she will give and take in a manner that’s proportionate with their partner’s experience level. You must learn to listen as well as talk. Give and take. Even if a newbie off the street wants to prove something, an experienced grappler will be able to strike a balance between giving the person some instruction and offering a few humbling moments to keep their ego in check.
Not everyone is going to be reasonable. Some people will come at you with anger and unbridled vitriol. Handle these people the same way you would handle an agitated person off the street. In a face-to-face scenario, you will want to attempt to deescalate and remain prepared to take physical measures to protect yourself. Online, you don’t need to worry about shutting someone down. You can deescalate indefinitely.
The key is to remain composed. Let your calm demeanor set the tone. Talk softly. Often, a person under the influence of anger simply doesn’t know how to effectively release these emotions efficiently. They are angry for a reason, and they likely assume they are going to be misunderstand and that no one is listening. They feel as if no one cares about their issue. So simply listen to them. Ask them questions. Remain calm and assume a non-threatening posture. Remember that this person is on edge, so you don’t want to exacerbate their frustration. Let them vent. They may simply need to get it out and cool down. From there you can begin an interaction from a different state, one of understanding. This is how you lower their defenses and disarm them. And of course, the whole time you are calibrating them for your own safety, always ready to defend yourself physically should it come to that. One other thing to note is that you shouldn’t ever tell them to calm down. This will only frustrate them further. Allow them to calm down as you go.
You don’t need to become a therapist here. You don’t need to offer them advice. Simply listen, and try to understand their point of view. Reassure them verbally: “that’s understandable,” or “I see what you mean.” And be sincere about it. It will piss them off if they feel you’re being disingenuous or placating.
Control your emotions. Do not let them get you riled.
We all want to be treated fairly. Once you get them calm, you are in a better position, then, to appeal to their sense of justice. It may not work on everyone, but many people are reasonable once you get them to let their guard down. You can then say things like, “I have been respectful to you this whole time, do you agree?” If this is true, they won’t be able to deny it. “Do you think it is unreasonable of me to ask that you also treat me fairly, as I have treated you?” The idea here is to begin setting up terms for the discussion that everyone can agree upon. A sort of etiquette, if you will. Get them to discuss things on your terms, and if they don’t agree, just know that you have been reasonable and that you are not obligated to continue.
The object is to get them to a more relaxed state, where they will be easier to work with.
Calibrate Whether They’re Reasonable
Some people are unreasonable. They are unwilling to work with you. They are rude and obnoxious, or just plain contrarian. Which means that no matter what you say, they are going to argue with it. If someone is incapable of having a reasonable discussion, disengage. Don’t waste time and energy on them. Save your energy for something more worthwhile. Always be calibrating.
Force Them To “Fight” Your Way
In mixed martial arts, a superior fighter will force his or her opponent to fight the match their way. This is how they control the match. If you are a superior striker and your opponent is a consummate grappler, you will want to keep the fight standing up. You want to play to your strengths and avoid getting sucked into fighting their way. You don’t want to give up the advantage.
In a discussion, this most commonly entails avoiding engaging with the straw man arguments they lay out for you. What is a straw man? A straw man argument occurs when you present a premise and your opponent responds by bringing up a seemingly related topic that doesn’t address your original premise. It could also be a misrepresentation of your original view, and they want you to address the misrepresentation instead. This is a distraction. The name is taken from when armies would set up fake “straw men” on a battlefield to lure their enemies into attacking the straw men.
The key is to never take the bait. Don’t attack the straw man, because this is the topic they want you to divert to. Remain focused on the premise you put forth and don’t move on until they’ve addressed it. Direct the discussion how you want it to go. If you have to, point out that they have used a straw man argument and that they have avoided your premise. Teach them what a straw man is and why theirs is irrelevant to the premise. Repeat as necessary. And remember, if they don’t want to play the game your way, you can always leave the interaction.
Example: Karen says she agrees with some of the policies of a particular politician. Michael says he can’t believe Karen would support a politician who did X terrible thing. Karen can still agree with some things a person does without accepting some of the other things they’ve done. Michael wants to direct the topic to the terrible things and ignore the rest.
Another common logical fallacy is the tu quoque, which is Latin for “you too.” This fallacy is also known as the appeal to hypocrisy. It is when someone avoids criticism by turning it back onto their opponent. For example, Dave brings forth a criticism of how Joe lied about having done his portion of a group assignment. Joe responds by bringing up how Dave lied about something three weeks ago. The fact that Dave lied in the past does not make his claim untrue.
Where I see this happening most often is when you bring up how someone or some group did something and your opponent says, “But [the opposition] did this other thing!” What’s happening here is they are attempting to divert responsibility or admitting that the first example was in the wrong. Simply explain how their example doesn’t render the others exempt from responsibility. Take the high road here by explaining that no one is exempt from responsibility, then resume control of the direction of the discussion.
Sometimes, people will try to take the easy road. It’s human nature. They don’t want to play the game your way, they want to play it their way. You’ve probably had this happen before: you bring up a pithy quote by some famous person, perhaps an actor. Rather than address the actual words, your opponent will respond by saying how the actor should stick to acting. Another example may be you cited a source the other person doesn’t like. Instead of addressing the content of the article, they attack the source. This is known as the genetic fallacy. People do this so they can dismiss your claim without having to address it. Simply say, “You need to address the content, not the source. What is your criticism of the article/quote? Are they wrong?”
Again, force them to fight your fight. Don’t let them divert the discussion or get away with it.
There are a good number of logical fallacies people commit all the time. My advice to you is to acquaint yourself with them and learn to recognize them. A great site to get started with is Your Logical Fallacy Is. These are your defenses. Learn them. Study them. A great fighter knows when to use each tool in their arsenal, and they practice escaping from every submission.
If someone is just being an ass and you don’t mind wasting a bit of time — maybe you need to inject some joy into your day — you can toy with people. I think this is best done with people who really deserve it, otherwise you’re just an asshole. What is the best way to do this?
Take a lesson from the master: Socrates. People found him frustrating because of his approach. He would play the fool and simply ask questions, constantly leading them wherever he wanted them to go, knowing that eventually they would trip themselves up and he would tie them in knots with their own logic. As long as you’re only asking questions, you will never be making any claims of your own that they can refute. The more people talk, the more likely they are to make mistakes. Socrates used this method primarily to make people think about things more critically. I do not think he was doing it to be a butthole. But in leading them in such a way, he could cause people to realize the flaws in their thinking, which also served the purpose of demonstrating that he was wise.
This is not unlike toying with a person who has something to prove on the mat. Sometimes an experienced fighter will engage such a person, and proceed to handle them indiscriminately to show them they aren’t as great as they think themselves to be. It’s embarrassing. One approach is to just make them tap out over and over, rapidly. As soon as you’ve tapped them you simply put them in a different submission. Another approach is to tie them up into uncomfortable positions they can’t get out of. Like the spladle. The objective is to inject a little humility into the person, to knock them off their high horse. We all need to be reminded from time to time how there’s always room for improvement, and we shouldn’t get too cocky. Be humble.
Discussion need not be a battle to the death every time. You can join the fray and remain composed, and you can direct the interaction in any way you choose. Come armed with knowledge of logical fallacies and practice how to spot them so you can respond accordingly and avoid making these mistakes yourself. The biggest thing you can do to be more like an experience fighter is to learn what is worth your time and what is not. The people who are the most skilled at fighting rarely get into fights outside the gym or ring. They know how to avoid fights, they can deescalate, and they don’t lose their cool when the situation calls for a more “hands-on” approach. They remain alert and look for weaknesses they can exploit. They make their opponents cater to their strengths and don’t fall for easy ploys. And just like anything, this comes with practice. Lots of it.
Don’t get down on yourself if you make mistakes along the way. It’s okay to admit that you were wrong. It may sting a bit, but a good fighter knows how to take a blow and adjust. Lastly, don’t be afraid to tap out. Knowing when to concede is also something all black belts are masters at. You don’t have to “win” every time. Use every encounter as a learning experience. That’s what fighters do. They learn from their mistakes and losses, make adjustments, and improve. And the better you get, the less like fighting every discussion becomes. The better you get, the less “danger” you’re in. Mostly.