I Respectfully Disagree: How to have a Proper Argument

I Respectfully Disagree: How to have a Proper Argument
Don't Just Agree to Disagree

The aim of an argument, or of a discussion, should not be victory but progress. – Karl Popper

Why do we find it so hard to discuss difficult issues? We seem to have no trouble hurling opinions at each other. It is easy enough to form into irresistible blocks of righteous indignation. But discussion – why do we find it so hard?

When did life become ‘all or nothing’, a binary choice between ‘friend or foe’? What happened to the serious playfulness that used to allow us to pick apart an argument and respectfully disagree?

Differing opinionsWhy do we resort to hurling opinions at each when we have differing views?

Champions and Villains

Perhaps this is what happens when our politics and our media come to believe they can only thrive on a diet of intense difference. Today, every issue must have its champions and villains. Things that truly matter just overwhelm us with their significance. Perhaps we feel ungainly and unprepared for the ambiguities of modern life and so clutch on to simple certainties.

Today, every issue must have its champions and villains. Perhaps we feel ungainly and unprepared for the ambiguities of modern life and so clutch on to simple certainties.

Indeed, I think this must be it. Most of us have a deep-seated dislike of ambiguity. We easily submit to the siren call of fundamentalists in politics, religion, science, ethics, and so on. They sing to us of a blissful state within which they will decide what needs to be done and release us from every burden except obedience.

Champions and villainsOur politics and media thrive on making every issue have champions and villains.

The Price of Certainty

But there is a price to pay for certainty. We must pay with our capacity to engage with difference, to respect the integrity of the person who holds a principled position opposed to our own. It is a terrible price we pay.

The late, great cultural theorist and historian Robert Hughes ended his history of Australia, The Fatal Shore, with an observation we would do well to heed:

The need for absolute goodies and absolute baddies runs deep in us, but it drags history into propaganda and denies the humanity of the dead: their sins, their virtues, their failures. To preserve complexity, and not flatten it under the weight of anachronistic moralising, is part of the historian’s task.

The price of certaintyWe pay the price of certainty with an inability to engage with difference.

And so it is for the living. The ‘flat man’ of history is quite unreal. The problem is too many of us behave as if we are surrounded by such creatures. They are the commodities of modern society, the stockpile to be allocated in the most efficient and economical manner.

Each of them has a price because none of them is thought to be of intrinsic value. Their beliefs are labels, their deeds are brands. We do not see the person within. So, we pitch our labels against theirs – never really engaging at a level below the slogan.


It was not always so. It need not be so.

Take Opposing Views Seriously

I have learned one of the least productive things one can do is seek to prove to another person they are wrong. Despite knowing this, it is a mistake I often make and always end up wishing I had not.

Proving a pointWhen you set out to prove another person wrong, they stop listening to you.

The moment you set out to prove the error of another person is the moment they stop listening to you. Instead, they put up their defences and begin arranging counter-arguments (or sometimes just block you out).

The moment you set out to prove the error of another person is the moment they stop listening to you.

Far better it is to make the attempt (and it must be a sincere attempt) to take the person and their views entirely seriously. You have to try to get into their shoes, to see the world through their eyes. In many cases people will be surprised by a genuine attempt to understand their perspective. In most cases they will be intrigued and sometimes delighted.

Alt text hereCan we learn to discuss our opposing views and respectfully disagree?

The aim is to follow the person and their arguments to a point where they will go no further in pursuit of their own beliefs. Usually, the moment presents itself when your interlocutor tells you there is a line, a boundary they will not cross. That is when the discussion begins.

At that point, it is reasonable to ask, “Why so far, but no further?” Presented as a case of legitimate interest (and not as a ‘gotcha’ moment) such a question unlocks the possibility of a genuinely illuminating discussion.

The Path of Mutual Respect

To follow this path requires mutual respect. Recognition that people of good will can have serious disagreements without either of them being reduced to a ‘monstrous’ flat man of history. It probably does not help that so much social media is used to blaze emotion or to rant and bully under cover of anonymity. People now say and do online things few would dare if standing face-to-face with another.

Respectful disagreementWe need to relearn the ability to discuss things that really matter with goodwill.

It probably does not help that we are becoming desensitised to the pain we cause the invisible victims of a cruel jibe or verbal assault. Nor does it help that the liberty of free speech is no longer understood to be matched by an implied duty of ethical restraint.

I am hoping the concept of respectful disagreement might make a comeback. I am hoping we might relearn the ability to discuss things that really matter – those hot, contentious issues that justifiably inflame passions and drive people to the barricades. I am hoping we can do so with a measure of good will.

If there is to be a contest of ideas, then let it be based on discussion. Then we might discover there are far more bad ideas than there are bad people.

A contest of ideasLet a contest of ideas be based on discussion that leads us towards progress.

The 10 Golden Rules of Argument

In his book, How to Argue, Jonathan Herring outlines positive ways of understanding and looking at arguments:

  1. Be prepared – Make sure you know the essential points you want to make. Research the facts you need to convince your opponent.
  2. When to argue, when to walk away – Think carefully before you start to argue: is this the time; is this the place?
  3. What you say and how you say it – Spend time thinking about how to present your argument. Body language, choice of words and manner of speaking all affect how your argument will come across.
  4. Listen and listen again – Listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Watch their body language, listen for the meaning behind their words.
  5. Excel at responding to arguments – Think carefully about what arguments the other person will listen to. What are their preconceptions? Which kinds of arguments do they find convincing.
  6. Watch out for crafty tricks – Arguments are not always as good as they first appear. Be wary of your opponent’s use of statistics. Keep alert for distraction techniques such as personal attacks and red herrings. Look out for concealed questions and false choices.
  7. Develop the skills of arguing in public – Keep it simple and clear. Be brief and don’t rush.
  8. Be able to argue in writing – Always choose clarity over pomposity. Be short, sharp, and to the point, using language that is easily understood.
  9. Be great at resolving deadlock – Be creative in finding ways out of an argument that’s going nowhere. Is it time to look at the issue from another angle? Are there ways of putting pressure on so that the other person has to agree with you? Is a compromise possible?
  10. Maintain relationships – This is absolutely key. What do you want from this argument? Humiliating, embarrassing or aggravating your opponent might make you feel good at the time, but you might have many lonely days to rue your mistake. Find a result that works for both of you. You need to move forward. Then you will be able to argue another day.
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How to Argue, Jonathan Herring



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