Monday, November 14, 2011

The Art of the Argument

If you know me, you know I am someone who likes to engage in a good debate.  I was a communications major; I love words in all shapes and sizes.   I don’t shy from a discussion and welcome the opportunity to hear opposing sides to an issue.  I believe that’s how we all learn and grow – if we all agreed, we’d be a Stepford nation.

And I respect the art of the argument.  There is a way to make a point with intelligence, honor, and yes, passion, without including the weaker methods of sarcasm, attacks on the opponent, and cutting barbs designed to take the attention away from the issue at hand.   This applies to Facebook discussions as well as presidential candidates, and I’d like to see more learn how to “fight fair”.  I'm a lot more likely to vote for someone who stands on his or her own convictions vs. focusing on the failings of another.  I remember once I went to a church service with a friend and the whole service was about the evils of another religious community.  Buh-bye.  This is not the uplifting message I expect to hear if I'm at church; their fight with the Mormon church was to attack them behind their back.  Not respectful, not intelligent, and not honorable.

When it comes to relationships of any ilk, fighting fair is going to make the difference between a strong friendship and a weak one; a solid marriage and a floundering one.  I’m Italian, so two of my inherited challenges are dogged loyalty and the tendency to hold a grudge.  My husband is quick to annoyance but also much faster to "I'm sorry" than I am.  It's a trait I admire about him; when we do disagree, he gets over it quickly and I am a little slower to do so, but I'm working on it..

Many of my friends here in Austin as well as online have views that vary from the most conservative to very liberal; agnostic to very religious; shy to outspoken.  There are certain people with whom I really enjoy entering into a debate, because they state their case fairly and don't attack personally.  The ones I disdain (and I'm happy to say they're friends of friends and not my own set of friends) are the debaters who question their opponent's education, or morals, or cut them down verbally.  

Most of the time, we don't get into arguments with our friends.  We stay polite and in some cases, you just don't go there on certain subjects with certain people because you know it's a hot button that is not going to end well.  It's the people we're closest to - mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, husbands, and children - that we tend to argue with on a regular basis.  I read somewhere that when a toddler acts out at home (temper tantrums, etc) but is perfectly behaved at school, it's a sign of love and trust.  They know that at home, their parents will love them unconditionally.  Oh, for all of us to have that kind of trust and love.  

I like these tips I found online* - they were designed for couples, in particular, but they apply to all relationships:
  1. Embrace conflict. There is no need to fear it. Conflict is normal, even healthy. Differences between you mean that there are things you can learn from each other. Often conflict shows us where we can or need to grow.
  2. Go after the issue, not each other. Friendly fighting sticks with the issue. Neither party resorts to name calling or character assassination. It’s enough to deal with the problem without adding the new problem of hurting each other’s feelings.
  3. Listen respectfully. When people feel strongly about something, it’s only fair to hear them out. Respectful listening means acknowledging their feelings, either verbally or through focused attention. It means never telling someone that he or she “shouldn’t” feel that way. It means saving your point of view until after you’ve let the other person know you understand that they feel intensely about the subject, even if you don’t quite get it. 
  4. Talk softly. The louder someone yells, the less likely they are to be heard. Even if your partner yells, there’s no need to yell back. Taking the volume down makes it possible for people to start focusing on the issues instead of reacting to the noise.  For me, yelling makes me shut down because of a past volatile relationship;  I can only focus with normal volume. 
  5.  Get curious, not defensive. Defending yourself, whether by vehemently protesting your innocence or rightness or by turning the tables and attacking, escalates the fight. Instead of upping the ante, ask for more information, details, and examples. There is usually some basis for the other person’s complaint. When you meet a complaint with curiosity, you make room for understanding.
  6. Ask for specifics. Global statements that include the words “always” and “never” almost always get you nowhere and never are true. When your partner has complaints, ask to move from global comments of exasperation to specific examples so you can understand exactly what he or she is talking about. When you have complaints, do your best to give your partner examples to work with.
  7. Find points of agreement. There almost always are parts of a conflict that can be points of agreement. Finding common ground, even if it’s agreeing that there is a problem, is an important start to finding a common solution.
  8. Look for options. Fighting ends when cooperation begins. Asking politely for suggestions or alternatives invites collaboration. Careful consideration of options shows respect. Offering alternatives of your own shows that you also are willing to try something new.
  9. Make concessions. Small concessions can turn the situation around. If you give a little, it makes room for the other person to make concessions too. Small concessions lead to larger compromises. Compromise doesn’t have to mean that you’re meeting each other exactly 50-50. Sometimes it’s a 60-40 or even 80-20 agreement. This isn’t about scorekeeping. It’s about finding a solution that is workable for both of you.
  10. Make peace. An elderly friend who has been married for 68 years tells me that she and her husband made a rule on their wedding day never to go to bed angry. They agreed from the outset that the relationship is more important than winning arguments. Sometimes this meant they stayed up very, very late until they came to a workable compromise. Sometimes it meant that one or the other of them decided the issue wasn’t really important enough to lose sleep over. Since they both value the marriage, neither one gave in or gave up most of the time. When one did give in or give up, the other showed appreciation and made a peace offering of his or her own. These folks still love each other after 68 years of the inevitable conflicts that come with living with another person. They are probably onto something.
I'm still working on some of these tips, myself... we're all a work in progress.  

*From psychologist and marriage/family counselor Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, writing for

** Random fact: the photo above is from the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate. I've been fascinated with Nixon and his successes and failures (the failures being the part people remember the most) since I was in college.


  1. Great advice! I hate arguing - I'm a conflict avoider so I keep it bottled up until I blow up and then have a screaming melt down over something dumb. I'm TRYING to be more adult about it and confront issues as they happen. It's hard though. This has given me a lot to think about!

  2. Is is hard! There is always room for practice, and I am trying to do better myself.


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