The Right Way to Argue, According to Psychology

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Have you ever had an argument with someone where you felt like they’re not even listening to what you’re saying? Like all they care about is just getting their point across without any desire to understand your perspective? You might be doing the exact same thing, even though your mind is telling you that you’re being fair and reasonable. Of course, with these arguments, you end up settling on absolutely nothing and everyone goes home with the exact same outlook they had before. With a few adjustments to the way you cross swords, you can transform a shouting match into a healthy cordial debate where everyone benefits.

Whatever you’re arguing about, be it politics, philosophy or relationship problems, it doesn’t matter which side you’re on; if you care about being “right” more than actually learning something new and understanding the opposing point of view, then you’re wrong. If you enter an argument with the intention of beating your opponent rather than reaching an agreement, then you leave no room for change in your way of thinking. Even if halfway through you realize you were wrong, your ego won’t allow you to admit it. How many times have you used logic and facts to beautifully back-up your argument, putting it as clearly as you possibly can, only to find out that they haven’t even considered anything that came out of your mouth? It’s not because you’re wrong —maybe you are— but the point is that they weren’t even listening. That’s what we often do: not listen. Instead, we talk and talk until we drive ourselves and others crazy.

Even if you know for sure that the other side is wrong, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t understand where they’re coming from. Don’t even think of it as an argument but, rather, a friendly discussion, where the main goal is to learn from them as much as you hope they’ll learn from you. You have to put yourself in their shoes to at least know why they think that way, instead of just assuming that they’re ignorant, bigoted or selfish.

It’s also important to know that having that sort of attitude doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you human. Everyone tends to behave that way from time to time, some more than others. It’s because human beings are emotion-driven creatures who allow their feelings to take control in situations where the rational side is needed. It’s not easy to manage, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

“Much of what we call emotion is nothing more or less than a certain kind —a biased, prejudiced, or strongly evaluative kind— of thought,” said the late Dr. Albert Ellis in his book, Rational Psychotherapy and Individual Psychology. Dr. Ellis is considered the second most influential psychotherapist in history after Carl Jung.

Your emotions can deceive you, and if you let them overshadow your logical thinking in an argument, then you allow yourself to deceive others as well. Therefore, it’s important and fair for both you and your opponent to try and get your emotions out of the way to leave room for rationality and objectivity.

So how do you try to argue in a way that will benefit all participants? In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, award-winning psychologist, lists the six ways to argue properly: “Know your facts, be ready to see the other person’s perspective, If you can’t be open-minded at least seem that way, keep your emotions under control, remain hopeful that the argument can be resolved, and, [most importantly], respect your opponent."

“Winning an argument doesn’t necessarily mean being the only one who’s right. If your goal is to resolve a conflict, then to ‘win’ might mean you ‘lose,’” noted Dr. Krauss.

Having these steps in mind might be the key to correctly approach an argument, but it’s also crucial to put more effort in displaying those attitudes in your behavior. Renowned philosopher Daniel Dennet gives four steps to argue intelligently and criticize with kindness:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Using these steps will help make your opponent more open to criticism, which advances the discussion and allows you to easily point out the flaws in their argument without making them feel like they’re being attacked.

The next time you’re arguing with someone, especially over politics, try to look beyond what they’re saying and figure out why they’re saying it. Everyone experiences the world differently, and just because someone doesn’t look at it the same way as you do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong. And if you think they are objectionably mistaken, it doesn’t mean they’re bad people. Maybe they just don’t have the same information as you do or their beliefs and experiences make them look at it differently. You can bash them for it, yell out all the facts you know and make yourself look smart in front of everyone, putting them down in the process. You also have the ability to guide them with a bit of humility and empathy, and they’ll appreciate you a lot more for that.

Also put in mind that you might just as well be in the wrong. You may be one hundred percent confident that you’re right, but so are they. If you’re not willing to listen to their point of view, how do you expect them to listen to yours? Someone has to start listening, so why not you?

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