If you think arguments are like fights, you’re clearly misguided.
Here’s what most people don’t know about the etiquettes of proper argumentation.
This article first appeared on my private email list — read by ~3,500 subscribers.
Few days ago, my girlfriend and I had a bad argument. We were, what you say, not exactly in talking terms for almost a day.
After reconciliation, when we reflected upon it, we could clearly see that it was not just a bad argument-it was a big fight! This could have been easily avoided had we ‘argued’ the right way. We made all the classic mistakes, and turned, what could have been a sensible discussion, into a scuffle.
Next time you are on the verge of a verbal spat with a loved one or a colleague, may this post guide you in the right path.
I write weekly articles on how to live in a world we do not fully understand.
Arguments aren’t fights.
In the 1980s and 1990s, University of Washington psychologist John Gottman had hundreds of married couples argue, glare, and reveal embarrassing things about each other in front of camera in his ‘love lab’. After doing this for 9 straight years, Gottman announced his findings in 1994.
His findings reveal that couples who stay married longer argue about as much as those who end up in divorce. However, successful couples go about their arguments in a different way, and with a different purpose. They use their disputes to solve problems and work out differences. Contrary to that, the ill-fated ones choose to attack each other instead. The happy ones argue, while the unhappy ones fight. Yes, arguments and fights aren’t the same.
Unlike fights, arguments aren’t about blame-shifting, he-said-she-said squabbling. In a fight, each disputant tries to win. In an argument, they try to win over.
In other words, you succeed in an argument when you persuade your audience. You win a fight when you dominate your enemy. A round of boxing, or an innings of cricket is a fight. Two siblings screaming at each other at the top of their voice is a fight. But when two reasonable adults have gathered to settle differences, and come to an understanding, it doesn’t necessarily have to fight-be it in the home turf, or in the office space.
In a fight, one tries to take out her aggression on another. “You are just pathetic!” But a persuader on the other hand tries to change her audience: their mood, their mind, and their willingness to do something. When done skilfully, persuasion gets people to want to do what you want.
Persuasion is an art, something like seduction. While our culture tends to admire straight shooters, the ones who follow their gut regardless of what anyone thinks, those people rarely get their way in the end. They aren’t persuaders.
Sure, aggressive loudmouths often win temporary victories through intimidation or simply by talking others to exhaustion ( especially in meetings), but the more subtle, eloquent approaches lead to long-term commitment.
Remember: If you don’t persuade, you only inspire revenge or retreat.
Don’t score points. Achieve goals instead.
If you work in a creative filed, I’m sure there will be clash of ideas and heated discussions every once in a while. At some point, your colleague would say something like, “That’ll never work,” and your instinct might be to reply back, “What makes you so cocksure?” in an attempt to score some ego points.
Instead, let’s start by agreeing with her: “Hmm, maybe not.” How about that? I’m sure you’ve done your homework, and are ready to fire your counter arguments, but instead of going with aggression, how about we go with humility instead?
Why, you ask? Well, your goal is to make your audience accept your choice, not to score temporary points, right? But your opponent wants to score a point here, so give her one. Your System 1 wants to to win arguments on points, only to lose the battle. Don’t allow it.
On the other hand, agreeing upfront with her changes her mood. She came for a fight, and got what she needed away. This causes cognitive dissonance, and puts you in a nice position for your rebuttal. Politicians use this technique to calm down an angry mob.
MOB: “You haven’t helped us at all! We are pissed!”
POLITICIAN: “Yes I agree. I’ve pissed all of you. It’s fairly normal to be mad at me.”
In other words, a good way to get people to agree with you is to agree with them-tactically, that is. Agreeing upfront does not mean you are giving up the argument. Changing the mood makes your audience vulnerable and more receptive to your arguments, which leads to change of opinions. It’s a nice strategy to use your opponent’s point to get what you want.
Remember: You goal is to make your audience to accept your choice, not score temporary points.
Avoid the past and present. Rely on the future.
In arguments, blames usually deal with the past: “Why were you late?” Values deal in the present: “Is the company’s current strategy ethical?” And C hoices have to do with the future: “Should we Netflix and chill?”
Most office altercations and domestic rows use the past or present tense: “She’s the one who ruined that pitch,” or “How can you be so insensitive!” Both of them fall under the influence of System 1’s need to score points, and you should avoid them by all means. The future is the best tense to maintain decorum-both in the living room, and in the war room.
Consider framing your sentences like this: “What should we do about it?” or “Let’s find a way to avoid this in future.” The past and present can help you make a point (or score one), but any argument involving a decision eventually has to turn to the future. Train your System 2 to define future choices.
What makes the future interesting is, unlike the past and present, it doesn’t depend upon facts. All you have for the future are either conjectures or choices. You have to learn to use that to your advantage.
For example, when you find yourself as a target, try to refocus the issue on future choices: “How is blaming me going to help us get the next contract?” or “Whether you think I’m insensitive or not, let’s figure out a way for you and me to get along.”
Never reply with something like, “But I tried my best,” or “You can’t be so mean to me!” When attacked, relying on the past or the present makes you look either defensive or weak. It doesn’t help you achieve anything.
An easy way to switch tenses (while making your counter argument) is to start with, “On the other hand,” followed by, “Besides.”
BOSS: This plan is ludicrous. This isn’t gonna fly!
YOU: On the other hand, it may. Besides, this is the perfect time to be aggressive and take risks. Most likely we won’t be able to do this 5 years from now.
Remember: Whenever you find an argument getting out of control, the easiest thing is to switch tense.
In matters dealing with your spouse or your partner, things can be a bit different. Never forget to show sympathy: “I understand you are in a bad mood.” Empathise: “I would behave the same way had I been in your position.” Then wrap it up by switching to the future tense: “Let’s find a way to make this work so that it doesn’t happen again.” Reconciliation always lies in the future.
This is easier said than done. In the heat of an argument, one is heavily dependent on the System 1’s fight-or-flight mode. You have to train your System 2 to get off it’s ass and do some strategic thinking, otherwise you would find yourself in unnecessary skirmishes every now and then.