On Argument…

I cringed when I read the following text, especially since it entangles much of with what I agree, with that fluffiness which I so much detest.

First: some stuff I agree with, randomly extracted:

http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/08/how-to-win-an-argument/

How do you handle the situation where the other person continually sucks you into an argument that you never seem to be able to win?

In a typical argument, each person tries to prove themselves right and the other person wrong.

An argument cannot be won with resistance. You will only strengthen the other person’s resolve. At best you will both leave in a state of stubbornness, but little communication will have actually occurred.

Now, let’s set it in context:

How do you handle the situation where the other person continually sucks you into an argument that you never seem to be able to win?

In a typical argument, each person tries to prove themselves right and the other person wrong. Of course, we all know what happens in the end – each person only ends up more entrenched in their views, regardless of who seems to deliver the most dominant argument.

An argument cannot be won with resistance. You will only strengthen the other person’s resolve. At best you will both leave in a state of stubbornness, but little communication will have actually occurred.

The way to “win” an argument is to aim for a goal other than being right. The other person will be prepared to defend against someone who is trying to prove themselves right. Trying to prove yourself right and the other person wrong is like making a frontal assault on an entrenched enemy position. You’ll need overwhelming force to win, and your victory will come at great cost, if you can even pull it off. Plus you’ll leave your relationship wounded in the end.

So instead of trying to be right, I’ve found that the best way to win an argument is to go for an entirely different goal. This has worked for me every time I’ve applied it, and I’ve used it dozens of times.

If you aren’t trying to win the argument, then what is your goal? I suggest you set the goal of attempting to raise the other person’s awareness while maintaining your own sense of inner peace. By this I mean that you focus on helping the other person become more aware of the full extent of their behavior and how it affects you and others, but without taking ownership of anything the other person says.

…and so forth; there’s more at [www.stevepavlina.com] which sets the wider context of the document.

Throughout the document I read an implicit teaching that any/all argument is actually a metaphor for some deeper ad-hominem conflict, or “problem”, or “issue” upon the part of the person who is raising it.

The preamble explains that it the document is written to be pertinent to family disputes – and this provides it some minor amount of slack in my eyes – but what I cringe (and downright pucker) about is that I occasionally see this same approach used by some in the business and technology world.

Perhaps some given instance of an argument might also have a personal dimension, but to teach people to invalidate the issue at debate by turning it into:

“You seem to be fairly upset about this. Why do you think that is?” or “So you’re saying you’d like to feel free to disregard my requests if you don’t agree with them. Is that correct?” or “Is this how you’d like to continue to feel about this situation?” or “Do you feel your behavior towards me is honorable and respectful?”

…is tragic, is shortsighted, teaches cowardice, lacks integrity, and demonstrates unfitness to lead.

Therefore, as you might expect, it’s a popular defence tactic amongst politicians.

I’ve seen much of this tactic in business, and although it has been explained to me time and time again that with some people you just need to swing them around to your argument gently” – when encountered it still sticks in my craw.

As an American Nobel Laureate put it:

Every day I would study and read, study and read. It was a very hectic time. But I had some luck. All the big shots except for Hans Bethe happened to be away at the time, and what Bethe needed was someone to talk to, to push his ideas against. Well, he comes in to this little squirt in an office and starts to argue, explaining his idea. I say, “No, no, you’re crazy. It’ll go like this.” And he says, “Just a moment,” and explains how he’s not crazy, I’m crazy. And we keep on going like this. You see, when I hear about physics, I just think about physics, and I don’t know who I’m talking to, so I say dopey things like “no, no, you’re wrong,” or “you’re crazy.” But it turned out that’s exactly what he needed. I got a notch up on account of that, and I ended up as a group leader under Bethe with four guys under me.

…it is possible for people to debate and discuss, to call each other “wrong”, and to change their minds when evidence and discussion suggests to do so, without it being a reflection of an ad-hominem attack.

To be called “wrong” is not a personal slight – it’s a challenge, and an exciting one at that, so long as you have the strength of character to admit it when you are demonstrably wrong.

So, to answer the author’s first question:

“How do you handle the situation where the other person continually sucks you into an argument that you never seem to be able to win?”

  1. Consider the possibility that maybe you are wrong, and weigh the evidence that supports that proposition.
  2. Consider the possibility that your opponent is uninformed (soluble), ignorant (fixable), set in their ways (harder), stupid (er), or just plain nuts.
  3. Continually keep your mind open to both of these possibilities.

As for the application to family disputes? Not in my family. It wouldn’t work.

One Reply to “On Argument…”

  1. re: On Argument…

    Hmmm. Having read the linked articles Steve Pavlina seems to be advocating this approach for “difficult” people, rather than generally – I think it’s perfectly valid to have a different approach for people who you would usually have deeply unproductive arguments with, although I don’t really like a lot of his suggested tactics.

    “Throughout the document I read an implicit teaching that any/all argument is actually a metaphor for some deeper ad-hominem conflict, or “problem”, or “issue” upon the part of the person who is raising it.”

    Eeeew. If that’s what you’re getting from it, then yeah, I’d definitely agree with “tragic”, and “shortsighted” as a reaction. Because it basically shuts down *any* hope of exchange of ideas. Quite a different thing from my own training, which was that if someone’s very angry, you have to acknowledge that first before you can head on in to the *real* topic. To suggest that the emotion can be the only ‘real’ topic…is just deeply wrong.

    “I’ve seen much of this tactic in business, and although it has been explained to me time and time again that with some people you just need to swing them around to your argument gently” – when encountered it still sticks in my craw.”

    Ok – so here, finally, I get to the point of my response. I don’t actually think that the above – ‘swinging someone around gently’ is at all the same thing. What I hear when someone uses that phraseology is a reminder that getting my argument across is not just a simple matter of me doing a quick brain-dump and standing back for the other party to admire my brilliance, but that I need to engage in some sort of ‘handshaking’ process first, no matter how tedious that might be when I’m in a hurry, or we are likely to end up talking completely at cross purposes. (Jumping in mid-thought works brilliantly with a few people, but as a general tactic it pretty much sucks for me. I’m probably just not close enough to most folks’ wavelength to be able to use it as a preferred approach.)

    Where it’s referring particularly to ‘some people’ – i.e. saying that you need to tread carefully with particular individuals – I don’t have a problem with that. I know that in dealing with a particular colleague, we may have some pre-existing issues and I need to avoid triggering those – if necessary by completely changing my normal mode of interaction. If saying “you’re wrong” to Joe shuts down all communication, then I don’t say “you’re wrong” until I’ve tried everything else first. Is that what they mean, or is it more a “never say ‘you’re wrong’ to Joe, ever”?

    Actually – this brings up an interesting side issue – how much would you say you change the way you talk with people according to context? Not at all? A little? Completely differently according to the person you’re talking to?

    hmm, had better leave that there, as it’s getting late.

    cheers, yon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *