Learn to Argue Productively
Arguments don’t have to be heated, explosive moments. As long as everyone’s in good faith, everyone can learn from one another.
By Harry Guinness
April 15, 2020
Arguments and disagreements aren’t always bad. They can solve problems, show you sides of things you haven’t considered before, and even be fun. But unproductive arguments, or worse circular arguments that you keep having over and over again, are a time and emotional drain — which nobody needs right now.
Like most things, there’s a skill to having good arguments. You can get better at having them with practice — and not in the high school debate-winning way. Productive disagreements aren’t all out shouting matches with a victor and a loser; they’re deliberate attempts to explore differences and reach a common ground, whether that be about who should be President of the United States — or if pizza for dinner is acceptable three nights in a row.
“In order for someone to have better disagreement with you, there has to be this sense that you’re working with the same material,” Buster Benson, author of Why Are We Yelling: The Art of Productive Disagreement, said. If one of you thinks the argument is about facts and the other about moral philosophy, you’re never going to reach an agreement.
In his book, Mr. Benson identified three “realms” of arguments: the realm of the head, the realm of the heart, and the realm of the hands. Arguments in the realm of the head are about what is true. “There has to be factual evidence you can go and look up somewhere,” he said. It’s things like the size of Los Angeles or the equation to determine the volume of a sphere.
Arguments in the realm of the heart are about what is meaningful — they’re about matters of personal taste and moral value judgments. For example, disagreements over whether Tom Cruise is a great actor or if babies should be allowed to wield firearms without parental supervision.
Arguments in the realm of the hands are about what is useful and practical. Whether it’s better to exercise before or after work, for example. Or if bailing out the airlines will help the economy. They can only really be settled with some kind of test or waiting to see how things go.
When you’re having a disagreement with someone, Mr. Benson suggested asking yourself (and the person you’re arguing with), “Is this about what’s true, what’s meaningful, or what’s useful?” Many unproductive disagreements happen because one person thinks it’s an argument about facts (Mr. Cruise has never won an Academy Award) while the other thinks it’s about one’s opinion (“Top Gun,” “Jerry Maguire,” and “A Few Good Men” are all exceptional films carried entirely by Mr. Cruise).
By stepping back and asking whether the disagreement is about the facts at hand, a matter of opinion, or how something should be done, you can make sure everyone involved in the argument is participating in the same realm. It doesn’t matter that Mr. Cruise hasn’t won an Academy Award as that’s a very poor proxy for brilliance — what matters is how he makes me feel.
Learn your own triggers
Anxiety is a tool that can help you understand what you value and why people argue with you, Mr. Benson said. The emotions you feel when someone disagrees or challenges you on something reveal where your personal expectations don’t line up with reality. He suggested paying close attention to what sparks it.
In his book Mr. Benson wrote, “Left unquestioned, each of these sparks of anxiety will dictate how we respond to the world like an invisible program: we’ll misread people, we’ll react incorrectly to new information, and we’ll always revert to trying to force the world to change to meet our expectations rather than updating our expectations to better fit the world.”
That someone doesn’t consider Mr. Cruise a genius isn’t a personal slight on me. It’s just a sign that my expectation (that Mr. Cruise’s talent is clear to everyone) doesn’t line up with the reality (that Mr. Cruise is a divisive figure). If I don’t question this expectation, I’ll forever end up in YouTube comment wars on the “Top Gun 2” trailer.
Ask questions that help you understand what they’re thinking
Arguments aren’t just about trying to be right. They’re an opportunity for you to understand things from a different perspective.
Mr. Benson recommended asking questions that reveal how they got to their position. “Don’t ask leading questions,” he said. “They have to be something that you honestly want to know.” By asking them genuine questions rather than digging in and arguing back, the disagreement is no longer “black and white, or about what’s good or bad, or right or wrong.” Instead, it’s an open conversation and a chance for them to explain their views clearly.
“Getting to an open conversation is the first thing you need to do no matter what,” said Mr. Benson.
Also, Mr. Benson explained that asking questions gives you a chance, when an argument is heated, to pause, catch yourself, and calm down a little bit while they answer you. If you want to have better disagreements, you have to be the one who creates the space for them. Reacting impulsively or with anger will just shut things down.
Make sure they understand that you understand
Asking questions isn’t enough. You have to follow their logic and “you have to make sure they understand that you understand their perspective,” Mr. Benson wrote.
If you can, summarize their position as you see it back to them, and ask them where you’ve gone wrong or if there’s anything you’re misconstruing. Mr. Benson stressed that everyone has blind spots. “I have blind spots and you help me reveal my blind spots to me with your conversation.” He explained that often disagreements arise because they have automatically disqualified an option that you consider credible.
For example, if you are arguing over whether eating pizza three nights in a row is acceptable and you assume they plan to order the exact same meal each night, you are misconstruing their argument if they feel pizza three nights in a row is entirely acceptable — provided you have a different style of pizza with different toppings every night. Wood-fired Neapolitan pizza and New York style slices are obviously not the same meal.
Talk about disagreements when you’re not having them
The worst time to try and settle a long standing argument is when you’re in the middle of its latest outbreak. That’s when everyone is most likely to dig in and fight their own corner, regardless of whether it’s useful or not.
Instead, Mr. Benson recommended talking about the persistent arguments you have with the people close to you outside of the situations that trigger them. “Go out for dinner or on a date and talk about the things you argue about constantly,” he said. “Ask what it is about this conversation that reveals differences in personality or preferences and how they can be good things we appreciate about one another.”
Mr. Benson gave the example of his and his wife’s preference in TV shows. “Now whenever my wife and I argue about what to watch,” he said, “We are like, ‘Isn’t it great that you like a different type of show to me?’ And we’ll find a way to make it work rather than argue about which show we should watch right now.”
Having productive arguments, especially about difficult or personal subjects, is hard. Even Mr. Benson, who wrote the book on having productive disagreements, admits he doesn’t always succeed. But the only way to get better is to keep trying. If an argument blows up in your face, think about what went wrong later on.
And next time, try to do it better.