Have you ever noticed how people make the most outrageous statements and expect to be believed without question? They issue pontifical pronouncements on subjects ranging from transcendental meditation to transistors, capital punishment to capital gains.Then when you have the audacity to challenge their credibility, they take offense.
One wonders whether the average person has the foggiest notion what it means to prove a claim or a conclusion. If this suspicion is true, and it probably is true, and it probably is true in more cases than you think, we may be in serious trouble. After all, is there any greater obstacle to an intelligent exchange of ideas than not having reliable proof to support what you say? It seems that knowing how to disagree without being disagreeable these days is a necessity, not a luxury.
A knowledge of how to argue effectively teaches you not only how to organize your ideas in a clear and meaningful way, but also how to defend yourself from being manipulated by others.
Growing up, countless children were taught to avoid arguing. Right or wrong, they were admonished to "play nicely." Unfortunately, such conditioning followed them well into their adult lives.
To argue is human. The problem is most of us never learned how to do it without getting upset and needlessly emotional. Too often we reject people, instead of what people say, i.e., we have difficulty separating people from their ideas.
An example of how civilized people should disagree occurs every day in our courts. Attorneys who were at one another's throats in litigation in the morning often enjoy friendly dining together in the evening. Television personalities, Perry Mason and Hamilton Berger, familiar courtroom adversaries, beautifully illustrate the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.
Rational argumentation is good for your health, both mental and physical. It is by expressing, not repressing, one's thoughts and emotions that a number of common symptoms are avoided; e.g., headaches, nervous tension, elevated blood pressure, and indigestion. Few things are more upsetting than leaving a business meeting without having said what you wanted to say, or having what you did say misunderstood.
Only a small percentage of the general public knows how to argue correctly. The rest are destined, if lucky, to learn from their experience. While it is certainly true that everyone can argue at some level, that level can be raised.
Here are four valuable tips you might wish to incorporate in your next disagreement.
While there are other factors capable of causing a breakdown in communication, the most common one is to get emotionally upset. According to the famous psychoanalyst C.J. Jung, "Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree."
The risk of raising the temperature of any argument is often proportional to the use of the words, "I-me-my." Except from the mouth of an experienced advocate or diplomat, these words seem to aggravate rather than soothe the climate of most controversies.
The words "I-me-my" seem to pit people against people, rather than ideas against ideas. The more frequently they are used in an argument, the more heated it is inclined to get. Conversely, the less they are used, the calmer and more satisfied the arguers are apt to be. What I am actually saying here is that most people argue from the heart and gut, not from the head. So in your next argument, make every effort to avoid using the words "I-me-my." Instead, begin your remarks with such impersonal phrases as "It would appear from the evidence ..." or "If I understand you correctly ..." or "Wouldn't you agree that ..." You will soon find that the heat of the argument will be significantly lower.
In addition to keeping the emotional level of an argument down, there is the matter of arguing premises, not conclusions. Experts in the field of argumentation have repeatedly stressed the importance of finding out how people reach their conclusions, not the conclusions themselves. For instance, if someone were to say to you, "Most politicians are crooks," how would you respond? You could accuse that person of being uninformed or misinformed or of being downright ignorant. The rational minded among us are constantly being amazed at the staggering number of people who, with little or no foundation advance the most cockeyed conclusions about anything and everything. The fact that their conclusions lack support does not bother them in the least.
Listen carefully for these unsupported conclusions. The next time you hear one, immediately press for its foundation; make a concerted effort to discover what kind of reasoning led up to it. Constantly bear in mind that a sure-fire method of shooting down your opponent's argument is to discredit its basis.
In any argument, your instinct to survive will prompt you to "think self." With very little effort, your brain will generate a lively set of reasons why YOU are right and the other person is wrong. Your opponent will do likewise. Both of you, unless you possess special training, will incline to "think self." While this is perfectly natural, it will be to your advantage to switch things around. Let me explain.
People are seldom persuaded but, if given the proper information, they will persuade themselves. Although this may sound rather oversimplified, the principle does have proven merit. Practically everything we think and do is predetermined by our attitudes, values, and beliefs. If you believe the Earth is flat, you stay away from the edge; if you believe that people are plotting against you, you are suspicious. Whatever the situation, your behavior is largely dictated by your beliefs. On this premise, your ability to change someone's mind on any subject will depend on your ability to "think other." You must ask yourself, "What kind of evidence or proof will it take to convert my opponent to my point of view?" What you consider to be sound proof, your opponent might consider unacceptable. That is why you are disagreeing in the first place. Therefore, to win your argument, you must think other: see both the problem and its solution through your opponent's eyes.
Arguing is like judo. In both, the objective is to overcome your opponent. A major difference is that in judo, the means is physical whereas in argumentation, it is rhetorical.
At first glance, the use of the word "yielding" in connection with an argument sounds like a contradiction. Yielding is generally associated with losing. According to Professor Jigoro Kano, founder of the art of judo, "Whatever the objective, the best way of achieving it is through the principle of maximum efficiency, minimum effort." He believed in using the other fellow's strength, rather than trying to resist it. For example, in judo, if your opponent is coming at you, instead of trying to stop him, you pull him in the direction he is already moving and, by doing so, utilize his forward momentum as an asset.
A widespread misconception about arguing is that the more you talk, the better your chances are of winning. In most cases, this is not so. What you do when you talk too much is give your opponent a bigger target, more things to use against you. Your strategy should be just the opposite: say less, not more. Get your opponent to talk more by asking questions, asking for examples and illustrations, asking for clarification, analogies and restatement. Again, like the principle of judo (win by yielding), don't resist, pull -- pull out as much information as you can.
A final word. Arguing is an art, not a science. Learning how to disagree without being disagreeable cannot be learned overnight. Like so many other worthwhile pursuits, it requires time, patience, and practice.
Abne Eisenberg, DC, PhD
Croton-on-Hudson, New York
Editor's note: As a professor of communication, Dr. Eisenberg is frequently asked to speak at conventions and regional meetings. For further information regarding speaking engagements, you may call (914) 271-4441, or write to Two Wells Avenue, Croton-on-Hudson, NY 10520.