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How to Earn the Right to Argue

Designing an argument to inspire a change of perspective

earn the right to argue

Today I’m excited to announce a new machine that will help you win arguments.

It’s called the Argumentative Theory Machine, or ATM for short. The ATM has three components:

  1. A database of argumentation moves
  2. An expert system for identifying and responding to these moves
  3. An automated feedback mechanism to improve your ability to argue well

All your conflicts can now all debated for you at the touch of a button.

But, there’s a catch. Because no matter how great this ATM is, no matter how persuasive, there is no guarantee you would achieve the desired outcome of an argument— a change of mind.

The work required to hold an opinion means that you not only need to argue against yourself better than others can, but can deliver that argument with humility.

With the exception of genuine injustice (where your view needs to be unconditionally stated), aiming to outright win an argument is rarely the best outcome. This focus on “Winning” is more likely to be counterproductive to your goals of persuasion. It’s a destructive distraction.

I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”

— Charlie Munger

Friedrich Nietzsche would say that, rather than testing the limits of people’s integrity, arguments should be an exercise in helping us become our most authentic selves. But sometimes that’s not a good thing. Because even if you make some compelling points, but deliver them with the grace of a sledgehammer, it only reveals to others something authentically real about you — that actually, you’re a jerk.

We all know the smug guy at the party who poked holes in our world view but proceeded to ridicule us for even speaking them. Even if you agreed with him, the experience you needed to endure to hear his perspective can be negative enough to resist a change of mind. This is why your ability to deliver an argument respectively is what determines our right to argue.

People care more about identity than your opinion

Having the right to argue starts by understanding one vital thing — that no matter how indisputable your reasoning, there is no guarantee it will be well accepted.

The psychologist Geoffrey Cohen once showed that Democratic voters supported Republican proposals when they believed fellow Democrats made them (similarly Republicans responded better when they thought the message came from Republicans). The conclusion? Tribalistic thinking is alive and well. You are more likely to agree with a set of opinions if you think they are aligned with your social group.

Every person has access to reasons that support one stance or another, but usually none against their own views. If someone doesn’t perceive that your points line up with their norms and values, it can feel like an attack on your identity.

This thinking is only exacerbated by the abundance of opinions we get exposed to every day. In our attempt to combat outrage fatigue, a simplified reasoning system like tribalism makes a lot of sense.

It’s easier to devolve a conversation into “You’re just wrong” rather than seeking ways to work together. Unfortunately, if you want your words to carry weight beyond ridicule, you need to design a better argument experience.

Arguments are won in our quietest moments

Counterproductively, we seem conditioned to believe that we achieve a change of mind in the “heat of the moment” of an argument. This is a dangerous distraction and speaks more to pleasing your ego than actually achieving persuasion.

Arguments are usually won somewhere between brushing teeth and washing dishes. During the quieter moments of the day, hours and even months after the debate itself.

To encourage this, the goal of an argument is to reach satisfaction amongst all parties, not compromise.

What I mean to say that arguments should not end with one side winning or losing, but instead when both sides feel they have been heard. Your aim should be encouraging at the very least for the other person to try and see things from your perspective. This is far more effective than forcing someone to reject their views and simply accept yours.

There’s no calculus’ for deciding when to give up — Wrosch

Check you are having the same argument

This one is simple but easily forgotten.

When a debate starts to go off course, double-check if everyone is actually talking about the same thing. Pay attention to the tone and language used. Take time to ask, “What do you mean exactly by this thing or term you mentioned?”.

People can have drastically different interpretations of the same terms. If not caught early, you could imagine how easily misunderstandings with no possible resolution start to arise.

Always check you are actually having the same argument.

Beware trigger words

There are just some words that really aggravate us. These are terms that can escalate an argument of ideas into a personal attack. The term “You” is the granddaddy of all these words. For others, it may be gendered language (notice I didn’t say grand-person before). For me, it’s a misuse of combative language like “war” where such terms have no place like a business strategy or public health policy.

Aim to avoid using such words and take note of which ones you and your correspondent are hypersensitive to. When this happens, I find responding with, “It sounds like you are trying to say X or Y”, or just acknowledging the mood in the room, “It sounds like there is a lot of tension”, helps things settle.

You want to make sure to use depersonalised language. Notice I didn’t say, “It feels like” or “You are saying”. This helps take personal friction out of the conversation and provide a pause for recalibration.

Use questions rather than statements

When making points, consider using questions next time rather than statements.

An easy way of achieving this is simply asking “Why”.

Three well-timed “Why’s” can be more effective in challenging assumptions than any number of studies or expert opinions. If nothing else, questions demonstrate confidence, leading people to question their own assumptions.

Make your opponents argument better than they can

If you follow the advice above, it can feel like you are doing double the work. And that’s very much the point.

Having good arguments means trying to use mental models that help make your position stronger. But, it should also help open your mind to the possibility of being changed.

Simply ask yourself this question, “Can I make my opponents argument better than they can?”.

If the answer is yes, you have earned your right to argue. All that’s left is to now test it by demonstrating this better argument to your debating partner. Doing so achieves the following:

  1. That you both are (hopefully) having the same argument
  2. That you both have the same understanding of terms used
  3. Demonstrates active listening, thus building trust and mutual respect (hopefully lowering defences to a change of mind later)
  4. Tests if there is actually a better argument you had not originally considered

Sabotage your own wins

Most people reading this should hopefully know to gracefully concede a defeat. But I’m willing to bet you may not have considered how to humbly accept a win.

Winning, as previously mentioned, is a distraction. Being handed one is counterproductive to changing perspectives, especially if your partner felt personally attacked during the encounter.

If a win happens, resist the urge to ram home any superior advantage. At this point, throw your debating partner a bone and help them save some face. We want people to walk away satisfied with the encounter.

You could state which of their points you agreed with or which have adjusted your own thinking. Conceding a win achieves satisfaction for everyone. It lets others know that changing their mind is not a failure of identity and they did not need to comprise who they are to get there.

What I hope this post gives you is the confidence to have more constructive disputes.

Philosophers have argued that criticism itself is the engine of intellectual progress. We each have our own miniature models of the world, and the ideas we defend in argument should help us test the assumptions those models are based on.

That is why it is so important to earn the right to argue. We want everyone to feel safer having disagreements. If bad arguments burn bridges, then good ones let us still walk across and see the view from the other side. You may get screwed over now and again, but the learning benefits are worth it.

And if you are lucky enough to know that your words carried the weight to influence others, remember this. That in the heat of the moment, your opponent achieved something you could not — a change of mind.

Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.

— Charlie Munger