• Rob

How to argue

“Don't raise your voice, improve your argument." – Desmond Tutu.

There is a concept called the illusion of depth of explanation; when the majority of people are asked about the “big” topics of the day, most of them believe they could explain the intricacies and inner workings in great detail. However, if you challenge them on this, the explanations they give are often vague and/or incoherent. The issue is that we (all) mistake narrow familiarity with general ideas for concrete, in depth experience and knowledge. This can be incredibly limiting when it comes to constructive debate about topics both large and small.

Another consideration to be mindful of is that our knowledge is highly selective; we often conveniently remember details that support our pre-existing beliefs and positions and forget those that are in opposition. Tightly coupled to this is the scrambling of individual critical thinking. Psychological studies have shown that we often fail (perhaps neglect) to notice the lack of logic in an argument if the conclusion supports our current view; once shown evidence to the contrary, however, we are far more inclined to be overly critical of all parts of the argument, both generally and in the specific details. This is known as motivated reasoning.

Asking why people believe something/have a certain view on an issue can often be a fruitless exercise; there is more value to be gained from asking how the idea would work in principle and asking them to expand.

As a result of the concept of illusion of depth of explanation described above, it follows that many arguments/standpoints will be built on false and/or weak foundations; shared with confidence but with a negligible understanding of the issue. A simple yet powerful method of refuting someone’s argument is to ask them to provide more “meat on the bones”. You can do this by asking them how the situation would progress, step by step. Simply asking someone why they supported or opposed an idea/policy/viewpoint, etc, without asking them to explain how it would work in reality is likely to end in an unsuccessful challenging of ideas.

If you are trying to refute a specific idea, it is important to make sure that you can share a coherent and convincing story that fills the gaps in the other person’s understanding. The impact and persuasive power of a well-constricted narrative should not be underestimated. This may involve careful analysis of the source(s) of information that the other person has used in forming their viewpoint and challenging the validity of that information.

If your attempt to reframe the discussion is not successful, you may have more joy by appealing to another part of the person’s character. Someone’s political views, for example, will never completely define them; we self-associate, consciously or not, with other behaviours, traits and values, e.g. our jobs, our hobbies, being a parent, our creativity, our moral code, etc. if you are able to appeal to a different facet of personality, you may find the argument being more constructive in nature.

If the conversation becomes heated/out of control, you may be able to apply subtlety in order to appeal to another set of values that the person possesses. Your ultimate aim should be to help them acknowledge that they can change their mind on certain issues whilst still staying honest and true to other significant features of their self.

It can be potent if you are able to convince the other person to take an outside perspective on the subject at hand. This can encourage a more detached and rational mindset; a straightforward method of doing this is to ask them to describe the discussion from the point of view of someone from another country. This strategy can lead to an increased psychological distance from the topic and can result in increased objectivity and a significant cooling of emotions. Another effective method for increasing psychological distance is to ask the person to imagine the subject, decisions around the topic and the consequences of those decisions through the eyes of someone in the future.

As we come full circle, I feel it’s important to remember a key lesson about arguments/discussions; people are generally more rational and more willing to recognise the limits of their knowledge and understanding if they are treated with kindness and respect. Conversely, being aggressive, rude or disregarding their views will invariably lead people to feel their identity is threatened. As a consequence, they are more likely to close their minds to further discussion.

To sum up, I truly believe that kindness costs you nothing but could buy you everything.



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