How to argue better — and what to teach your children about arguing

I love arguing — if it’s done right.

There are basically two kinds of arguments. I only like arguing to reach the truth.

Arguing for enlightenment

In school, I learned that science is about testing out what is true about the real world, to gain insight. I liked that idea. I am not a scientist, but I like to think like one.

Studying to be a mathematician, I learned what forms of argumentation are valid and what forms are spurious.

When I entered business, I began to see that, for the most part, this is a striving to get to the best truth about what will help the business. There are lots of arguments in business. But they all come down to “Will this help us be more successful? Will it help us be more profitable? Will it prepare us better for the future?” Those are the terms of the discussion. If you can prove your idea does those things — with actual evidence — you’ll likely win the argument. At the very least, they’ll listen to you.

As an analyst, I participated in many arguments. Industry analysts are attempting to find the answers to hard questions — questions without obvious answers. These are questions many people disagree about. Analysts do research to try to find the best answer and back it up. There is always a devil’s advocate. You can always be wrong about something. At Forrester, where I honed my craft, there was always a vigorous internal debate about any perspective. Often, the back-and-forth led to deeper insights, insights that served our clients better.

Now that I help people with writing, I review many corporate strategy papers. They are a lot like those reports at Forrester. You have to marshal evidence and talk to people who disagree with you. You may be wrong. Arguments about such things within companies are again, trying to get to the truth, to find a more enlightened perspective.

All of these types of arguments are invigorating. When you find out you are wrong — or at least, that there is more to what you are deciding than you thought — it is exciting. If you become defensive, you are losing out on an opportunity to become smarter.

Arguing to score points is fruitless

I see a lot of arguments on the airwaves and in social media now. The people arguing are not there to learn. They are there to score points.

On television, a “win” is if you can humiliate somebody with a different point of view.

On social media, people argue just to be annoying. They’re not out to convince anybody, just to create bad feelings in people they disagree with.

Such arguments make you feel worse, not better. Whether you win or lose, you feel dirty. There is no chance for enlightenment.

How to argue (and teach your children to argue)

I think part of the problem is that these point-scoring arguments happen in public. In public, admitting you are wrong is hard. In public, scoring points against the opposition is “winning.”

In private, in an environment dedicated to finding truth — like science, or a technology research company, or among corporate strategists — arguments can generate actual insight. That only happens if you can admit you are wrong without “losing.” That’s a lot easier without a big audience.

Teach your children how to argue. Teach them how to be wrong. Teach them how to disagree without being nasty or personal. Teach them how disagreement can lead to insight.

This includes arguments that you have with your children. I’ve heard people say that “all children are lawyers” — that is, they all know how to argue, using logic and evidence, for what they want (say, a puppy, or ice cream, or staying up another half-hour). Those arguments are productive. Encourage them — and engage them in arguments about things that matter, like politics and science.

We need to teach this to our children, because if all they see of arguing is what’s on cable news and social media, they’ll never learn to argue to gain insight into the truth.

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