How to argue productively
Turning destructive arguments into productive dialog
In open organizations full of frank and honest conversation, disagreements are inevitable. How can you ensure your teams are making those disagreements productive—and not destructive?
I loved having debates with my uncle. We'd debate a wide range of issues, but I'll always remember one debate in particular.
On this issue, we had very different opinions. I mentioned to him that no matter how different our opinions were, he couldn't insult me. He didn't agree, so I asked him to try.
"OK," he said. Then he started calling me names and swearing at me.
After each statement he made, I'd just respond by saying, "Why do you say that?" or "I don't understand your point. Could you clarify it?"
The more he yelled, the more I kept asking for more details about his arguments. Eventually, he gave up.
By that point in my life, I'd developed the confidence to understand the difference between personal attacks and arguments over issues. Insults and verbal abuse are not arguments—not even weak ones. That difference is important to remember in open organizations, where productive argument is often the only way to foster transparency, inclusivity, and collaboration. How, exactly, can we conduct arguments in such a way that actually achieves the kind of transparency, inclusivity, and collaboration we're looking for?
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, author of the book Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, offers some advice. In this article, I'll explore that advice for anyone seeking to build an organization full of productive debate (and in a follow-up piece, I'll explain some common impediments to productive arguments).
First, however, we'll need to understand what an argument actually is (and isn't).
What is an argument?
Sinnott-Armstrong explains that arguments differ from other types of altercation or confrontation, namely:
Abuse: Arguments are not just moments of incivility or attempts to pressure someone into doing something. Sinnott-Armstrong says abuse must always stop and discussion must be directed to the issue being addressed.
Physical attacks: Arguments are not two people physically fighting with each other. Physical attacks do not address issues, Sinnott-Armstrong notes.
Verbal attacks: Arguments are not verbal insults, swearing, name calling, or losing one's temper. Nor are they simply idle threats to amuse allies. Verbal attacks, Sinnott-Armstrong says, do not address issues either.
Denials: Arguments are not just saying "no" or disagreeing with someone without cause or reason, nor are they just someone's contradictions or someone's bringing up other issues. Sinnott-Armstrong says that anyone saying "no" should present a counter argument (with appropriate justification) on the issue at hand.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong, an argument must have two components: a premise and a conclusion. A premise is a basis for the argument, stated or assumed, on which reasoning proceeds. It's a statement of generally believed facts or evidence upon which the conclusion is based. A conclusion is a result or outcome of that reasoning—a deduction, final opinion, decision, or judgment based on the premises of the argument.
Think about legal proceedings in a court. Each attorney gives a final summation, often called a "closing argument." This is the kind of "argument" Sinnott-Armstrong is describing. An argument is given when (and only when) someone (the arguer) presents one claim (a premise) as a reason for another claim (a conclusion) that might follow it (so unfortunately for my uncle, simply cursing is not an argument). Sometimes premises are assumed rather than asserted. Sometimes even a conclusion is not stated explicitly, only suggested. Such assumptions could be misleading, and everyone involved in an argument should confirm they are in fact a speaker's intent.
Let's look more deeply at an argument's premises.
Assessing the premises
When assessing an argument, always consider when its premises are believable. And are they justified? That question often leads to secondary arguments on the truthfulness of the premise itself. Then, by exploring the validity of an argument's premises, people can bring additional assumptions to the surface.
If you think about it, this kind of probing can go on forever—and kill an otherwise valid argument. Sinnott-Armstrong notes that some people will deliberately require evidence for premises that is either difficult or impossible to obtain, and explains that those people need to moderate their desires, hopes, and/or standards if they want to be successful in any argument. Moreover, skeptics must also desire to continue exploring the truth and understand that they will never totally know answers to all their questions. To some degree, all people involved in an argument must be willing to accept some information as unknown but highly likely.
Therefore, Sinnott-Armstrong says, we have to convince people through reasonable assumptions. We need at least some justification, reason, or jointly believable evidence on which to base our arguments. Finding that commonly believed evidence is what we all have to look for when arguing over an issue. Such exploration is the foundation of productive arguments.
If you are to be respected, you must give credible reasons for your arguments. Also, you must ask people for their reasoning. This promotes mutual respect.
Now, let's move into how we can argue and actually achieve something.
Making arguments (at) work
For an argument to be successful, people participating in it must be willing to listen and be receptive to positions other than their own. They need to practice skills associated with encouraging participants to be similarly receptive. In particular, Sinnott-Armstrong suggests we need to learn modesty (not claiming that we possess the whole truth), graciousness (conceding opponents' points when we should), patience (being willing to wait for participants to think through the points we're making) and forgiveness (when people are struggling with the points we're advancing).
Two people who hold completely opposing views might still be able to cooperate if they share enough common goals, are humble enough to admit that they don't know everything, respect each other enough to listen to one another, and are willing to work toward mutually beneficial agreements. But they won't be able to accomplish anything if they have no respect for each other, refuse to listen to one another, are overconfident, and lose all willingness to reach compromise.
So to get better at conducting successful arguments: assert less and question more.
Reframing the outcome
Having a "successful argument" doesn't need to mean "winning" that argument. For instance, you may "win" the argument, but not learn anything from your victory or fail to see another perspective. You may "lose" the argument itself but gain new knowledge, perspective, insight, expertise, and humility in the process. A successful argument is simply one that remains civil, one in which both parties come to understand their opposing views and people learn something—even when they're working with doubtful information. In the spirit of collaboration, another goal of successful arguments could be to keep the discussion going and moving forward, even when drastic differences of viewpoint are present.
Ultimately, we must respect emotions and remember that fear and anger often impede sound, careful reasoning. Using words loaded with emotion might suggest that we'd prefer to fight others rather than listening to them. And that can cause a loss of desire or willingness to compromise—even to listen to any competing arguments at all. Everyone in an argument must do everything they can to control emotions as it unfolds. And we should always be assessing whether our positions are driven by emotions, fears, anger, hatred, greed, or blind compassion—or by facts, and open mind, and a desire to determine the truth (this is what I was trying to do with my uncle: press him to provide evidence for claims rather than attempting to "win" an argument emotionally). Always consider the environment and the emotional levels of the participants, which can influence productive arguing.
In my next article on this topic, I'll explore further some of the most common impediments to open and productive disagreement.