How to Argue

Not long ago, I saw my extended family. Little did I know, our pleasant conversation would turn into a heated discussion (about things that hardly mattered) where all we cared about was one-upping each other, adding too much value, and inadvertently trying to put the other person down at the cost of “being right”. Of course, to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, it wasn’t our intent, but it nevertheless manifested through our actions. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was acting the same way as them. Ordinarily, I would have been the last one to do so. Maybe it’s because we tend to become like those who we surround ourselves with? I don’t know. Needless to say, I found the whole experience draining and vowed to myself to never go through the same ordeal again. This experience reminded me of times when you have to let go of old friends and family who inadvertently hold you back.

Sadly, this experience is not uncommon in families around the world. You’ll often find families discussing politics, religion, or other controversial topics over holiday dinners, which inevitably leads to conflicts. The point is we have strong views about things and, more often than not, we are looking to confirm those view points from others rather than seeking out the truth. Because others try to put you down, you become defensive and act the same way, and the cycle only continues.

Another example. My cousin loves to “explain” things to others, but he seems unreceptive to the idea of learning from others — listening to them, and trying to understand their viewpoint. We all have people in our lives who seem to know it all. They refuse to listen, let alone understand the perspectives of others. They might pretend to listen, but they always seem to be explaining things when they actually need to understand.

I have had the opposite experience as well. When I see some of my friends, our conversations are much more constructive and we might end up learning at least something, which we wouldn’t have been able to do without those conversations. Sure, we debate a lot, but we also listen to each other to understand our point of views. We value our differences in opinion.

We often use the word “argue” to mean heated debates and unpleasant verbal exchanges between people. We use the word as a synonym for quarreling, disagreeing, fighting, or involving yourself in any kind of verbal dispute, where all you are doing is making the thing you’re talking about personal. At some point in the conversation, you stop caring about the idea or thing you’re talking about and simply look to “win” at all costs.

Arguing actually means giving reasons or evidence to support your claim and persuading others in the process. Contrary to popular belief, it is not about two people going at each other to win some debate, but two people on the same side trying to advance learning or seeking a higher truth. It isn’t about resolving some tension between two people, but it’s about making a case for something you believe to be true and presenting your reasons for the same.

For instance, in an elocution competition, two students might find themselves debating in school. Each student presents their argument and then they both take turns at questioning the other. Each student keeps track of what the other has said and brings up some of those things when they find their own ideas being contradicted by themselves. At the end of a discussion where both sides have presented their arguments, both people should walk away learning at least something new than they would have otherwise. That is one example of arguing done right.

Now that we have established that “arguing” is different from having a verbal/heated discussion, here are some benefits of arguing. The most important reason is to advance greater learning and personal growth. This is to strive to be in the relentless pursuit of “truth”. Unless you are able to express your ideas freely (in a safe environment), you won’t know if they hold any water. Having these arguments can help you widen your worldview, show you the flaws in your thinking, and helps you value diversity in opinions from those you trust and respect.

For instance, I believe in some things for a reason, and I am unafraid to share those things with those I trust and respect. Only when I find myself engaging in constructive debates with friends and mentors can I see the ways of my thinking being validated or disproven. How else would you learn and grow (apart from reading and experiencing things)? I guess in that sense, I like to have strong opinions that are loosely held. I am happy to change my stance on things if it can be proven to me because I don’t care about being right as much as I care about finding the truth.

Oftentimes, we are so unconsciously biased in our line of thinking that we can’t see the error of our ways (our blind spots). Of course, it would be easy for others to point out the holes/flaws in our arguments, which may help us improve our learning about that thing. That’s the reason you work with a coach. It’s best when they don’t know much about you so they can see your situation for what it is and give you their unbiased view.

Here are some ways to argue better.

You only argue when you want to advance your learning about a thing or cause. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not about “winning”, so you never make it personal. Always make the argument about the thing/idea and never about the person you’re talking to.

Avoid having conversations with people who won’t listen to what you have to say. Seek out feedback/opinions of those you trust, and be unafraid to express your views. You have to be willing to share your views on a topic without inhibition and be unafraid to be proven “wrong”. In fact, you should look forward to being proven wrong because you care more about seeking the truth than being right.

When it comes to arguing with those outside your trusted network, I concur with Charlie Munger’s view:

I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.

Never be afraid to change your mind. There is nothing wrong with having strong opinions about things as long as you are open to changing them.

When arguing, try to steer clear of labels. For instance, you might be liberal in some things and conservative in others. Slapping a label onto yourself (or others) never helps.

You have to listen first and understand the other person’s perspective. Otherwise, you would both be vying for each other’s attention at the same time. The truth is we care more about being understood by others rather than being agreed or disagreed with. You want to reinforce their basic argument while making note of the strongest part of their argument. This provides a better canvas for the two of you to engage in a healthy discussion. It gives people the necessary space and freedom to respond in a non-threatening manner as their ideas are being listened to, understood, and maybe even expressed in a better way than they would have been able to do. Of course, this is easier said than done.

When it’s evident that the argument is not being understood, we need to be patient while we seek to find another way to explain things rather than increase our volume, which is pointless. It’s also easy to drift into other areas while arguing. Be aware of that.

There are also ways of disagreeing with others in a healthier way. Here is what I wrote in that draft:

Play the devil’s advocate. Argue for and against your idea and have the other person do the same. Then, compare and contrast.

Avoid shying away from having constructive discussions.

The thing is we are so afraid of having conflicts in our relationships and in our organizations that we run away from them because we don’t know how to constructively manage our thinking. We want to avoid having arguments, avoid potential confrontations because it’s easier to keep the status quo than to challenge it; we might even take pride in our non-confrontational status [I know I have in the past].

An argument is not about “winning”, but about finding the truth. It’s not about being right as much as it’s about being understood and gaining clarity. It’s about having the freedom to express your ideas in a safe environment with those you trust and respect. You and the person you’re talking to aren’t on opposite sides — you’re on the same side trying to make sense of it all.

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