I missed writing Free Advice Fridays almost more than writing my huge rhetorical blurgs about the church. Today we’re going to discuss a skill that takes a long time to cultivate: arguing well. No one wants to relate to someone who is a jerk in an argument. Even more than that, no one wants to listen to someone who doesn’t debate well, so if you want your views to be heard and respected it is absolutely imperative that you know how to debate without taking the offense.
So, here’s some free advice:
- Don’t call in the forces. This means you should say, “I believe this” or “I think that”, not “everybody knows.” If you are, for instance, debating politics and say “everybody knows that the Democratic party bribes poor people into voting for them through increasing welfare programs”, and the person you’re arguing with either doesn’t know that or disagrees, they will resent you for it. Or, even worse, you could be totally wrong and then not only lose points for yourself but the “everybody” you’re calling in for backup. But wait, there’s more! What if you say “any Christian would agree”, and the person you are talking to turns out to be a Christian who disagrees? Either you’re wrong, or they’ll think you don’t believe they are a Christian. So don’t speak for more than yourself unless you’ve got cold hard data at your fingertips to show you are right. And if you have that data, relay the data and let it speak for itself. You speak for yourself, plain and simple.
- Ask a lot of questions. If someone says something you disagree with, don’t say, “well dude you’re wrong.” Ask, “why do you believe that?” You may find that you learn something you didn’t know. Or, if you still disagree, you may find that you better know how to defend and explain your position.
- Listen, carefully, and repeat things back. So the person you’re talking to says, “you need to understand that people in poverty don’t have the options you do. There are a lot of hidden costs to being poor.” Repeat it back, say, “so there are costs to poverty that you think I don’t know about?” Give them time to clarify. Otherwise, you run the risk of misunderstanding what is being said. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen two people debating where one is missing huge parts of the point that the other is trying to make. A lot of times this is due to zealousness in wanting to defend their own point. But, here’s the rub; if you are so busy trying to make your own point that you don’t take the time to understand the other person’s argument, even if you win the argument in your own mind you lose it in theirs.
- Don’t use talking points. You know what someone thinks of when you give a talking point that has been bandied around all over the place? They think you can’t think for yourself, they think you just repeat what other people said, and they think, “for the love of all things cool and shiny I’ve HEARD THIS BEFORE and I didn’t agree with it THEN.” You may agree with what you’ve heard, you may think it’s a good point. GOOD! So instead of repeating it verbatim, explain it. For example: “By giving poor people handouts you encourage them to stay in poverty.” Compare that to: “I wonder if people in poverty would be able to come up with better solutions for themselves if they didn’t have government handouts allowing them to continue in the same patterns.” (Note: This is just an example. I believe poverty is WAY more complicated than that, and predates government handouts by a couple of thousand years.)
- Be nice. No one will respect you if you insult them, or their views, or subject you’re debating. Use polite language, and use tact and forethought with how you word things. There’s a big difference between saying, “you’re an idiot”, or “that is illogical” or “have you considered things from this other point of view?” One way of speaking is unecessarily confrontational. The other invites a positive response- and a positive response can set the tone of the debate in your favor.
Even if you don’t win the argument, you will go down as someone who welcomes debate and does so with respect. If people respect you, it’s more likely that they’ll seek you out for discussion in the future. And who knows- the more you go around an issue with someone, the more likely it is that they’ll come to respect not only you but your point of view.
So, on this lovely Friday, don’t fear arguments. Just remember that your words are only one part of what people listen to: your attitude and tone also convey a loud message. If you want to win in life you need to win more than just the debate, you need to win respect.