How to Argue Productively

Most arguments aren’t productive. But argument can be productive if you do it right.

The First Rule

The first rule of productive argument is the same as in many other areas: Define your goals.

Do you want to discover the truth, understand the other person, or just win a competition?

This blog post applies only to the first two goals: discovering the truth and understanding the other person.

The Second Rule

The second rule of productive argument is obvious but usually ignored: Get a clear idea of what you’re arguing about.

Many arguments end up bitter and unresolved because of ignoring the second rule. People yell at each other for hours without making any progress because none of them know what they’re trying to prove or disprove.

At the very beginning, you should identify the points where you and the other person agree. At the same time, identify as clearly as possible the points where you disagree.

Focus your attention on the specific points where you disagree. If there’s more than one point, take them one at a time. Trying to do them all at once will just confuse things.

The Third Rule

The third rule of productive argument is: Identify the underlying points on which you disagree.

For example, suppose you disagree about whether or not “Person X is a racist.”

You might find that you disagree about:

  • What the word “racist” means.
  • What facts justify calling someone a racist.
  • What the facts are in the specific case you’re discussing.

At the end of the discussion, you might still disagree but you’ll understand why. You’ll also know what additional information might help you come closer to agreement.

As an added bonus, you will understand each other better. You will have taken a small step toward making society more rational, peaceful, and tolerant.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Philosophy, Political Science, Society and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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