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Life How to argue with people: A holiday guide to not ruining everything for everyone

Illustrations by Daniel Fishel

Arthur Schopenhauer may have written his treatise on The Art of Being Right in 1831, but the German philosopher’s greatest hits for winning an argument appear to be all the rage these days.

You may recognize “Bewilder Them with Bombast.” Or this trio of classic gambits: “Interrupt Repeatedly,” “Change the Topic Suddenly” (the mutatio controversiae) and “Make Your Opponent Angry,” by “being generally insolent.”

If this all seems too pedestrian – Insults! Everybody’s doing them! – one may always try "Cite Experts.” Real ones can be twisted for your purposes, Schopenhauer suggests. But fake ones, as he observes knowingly, work just as well. The truth, he notes, “is an accidental circumstance,” a bit of fluff to be flicked away.

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Played your hand, and still sensing defeat? Simply “Claim Victory,” and call it a day. “If your opponent is shy or stupid,” the gentleman philosopher proposes, “and you yourself possess a great deal of impudence and a good voice, the trick may easily succeed. “

Schopenhaer’s wry, tidy book might as well be titled: How to Be Right, and Spend the Holidays Alone. (Or Live in the White House.)

Arguing well is surely one of the great secrets for a life of comfort and ease. Yet, we are generally terrible at it, prone to ranting and raging, easily fooled by bluffs and cheats – when we are not ourselves bluffing or cheating. Schopenhauer, whose outrageous personal life suggests plenty of real-world practice in volatile points of view, had hoped his satirical essay would guard the reader against tricksters, and even elevate the art of argument. Rounding things up 200 years later, philosophy professor Christopher Tindale, director of the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric at the University of Windsor, measures the current state of debate at rock bottom. The conflict-resolution approach favoured by the current U.S. president – i.e., boorish nicknames and shouting in CAPS – has hardly helped. Social media isn’t much better. We may now fling any and all of Schopenhauer’s strategies with callous abandon, never needing to register the hurt on our human target.

A society that loses its ability to argue respectfully cannot find common solutions, as Dr. Tindale and his colleagues point out. In the extreme, this leads to argument by bomb or bullet, with the tragic results in evidence today. But neither are disputes settled by angry rally chant or rambling, toxic tweet or by throwing shade à la Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. If this is the standard, how then will we conduct ourselves with those who see the world from a different perspective, whether stranger or family?

How can reason win if we cannot be reasonable?

We can do better, the experts say. We can achieve our true goals, possibly change a few minds, and keep our friends. Indeed, the scholars of argumentation theory propose that if we understand the true nature and value of argument, we can win when we think we lose; we can hold all the power by simply shutting up. We can learn to joust verbally without cutting down, and listen to – and even learn from – the “other side.”

We can even be nice, like the two women praised last year for politely ending a half-hearted spat about the popularity of our current Prime Minister – their brief exchange went viral, dubbed When Canadians Fight on Twitter. “I misinterpreted, my apologies,” @BilodeauMeg typed. “I was unclear, completely not your fault,” @KalmarSheryl replied. That this brief exchange counted as an argument worthy of note would have had dear Schopenhauer weeping in his lager. But this is where we are: Civility is the blue whale of public discourse – endangered by neglect, yet celebrated when it surfaces.

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For instructions on how to fight fair – or, at least, fairer – read on. Surely in this age of bewildering bombast, a reasonable person (you, naturally!) needs every advantage. At the very least, a few lessons from the scholars of argumentation might prevent someone (never you, of course!) from throwing the turkey at sexist Uncle Joe this holiday dinner.




Make a smart opening move

Let’s say you want to watch Bridesmaids, but you know your partner won’t be keen. So you propose The Notebook, which you know your partner hates. Suddenly, you’re enjoying popcorn with Melissa McCarthy. Jay Heinrichs, author of the book Thank You for Arguing, calls this “proposing an extreme choice” – a strategy that can also prove useful in more political contexts, to push your opponent toward the middle ground.

Or perhaps you find yourself in a heated debate about immigration. Flattery is a wise opening, even with someone whose opinion makes you cringe. (As any politician knows, likeability holds more sway than logic.) Begin with “I can see you have really thought about this topic,” before leaping into battle. Try to make it personal – cite the example of a neighbour rather than a group. You might also employ “the reluctant conclusion” – suggesting that you reached your current view only after much research and despite your initial leanings. Agree in the moment, so you might pounce later.

“Absolutely, this is manipulative,” Mr. Heinrichs admits in an interview. Notably, the fourth chapter of his book is called “Soften Them Up. ”

“Rhetoric is the art of good people speaking well,” he says on the phone, without apology. “The good part is up to you.”

Know what you’re fighting for

Let’s assume we prefer to employ these methods benevolently. One of the first lessons from Mr. Heinrichs, who coaches high-school students on how to argue, is that people tend to stumble into an argument unclear of their goal. Is it to change a person’s mind, their mood or their willingness to do what you want? “Most arguments,” he says, “happen in the wrong tense.” The past is about blame, the present is about values (who is good, or bad?) and the future is choice. So if you want to become ensnared in an argument about how many times you promised – and failed – to scrub the toilet, linger at your peril in the past. If you’re better served by a debate on hiring someone else to clean the house, look to the future.

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Argumentation theorists make it their business to study how arguments twist and turn, are won and lost, and using their research is a helpful guide to sidestepping the common traps. Be mindful of facade words – particularly the vague yet ominous-sounding “they” that are “ruining the country.” (The simple antidote, Mr. Heinrichs suggests, is “What do you mean by ‘they’?”)

Watch out for fallacies, faulty leaps of logic or intentional detours – the distraction of the Red Herring, the exaggerated slide into chaos of the Slippery Slope. Alternatively, use them to your advantage. The reductio ad absurdum – taking your opponent’s argument to a nonsensical conclusion – may prove especially entertaining.

Know your audience. Liberals and conservatives, research shows, prioritize different values – equality and fairness on the left, tradition and individual liberty on the right. To reach agreement, argumentation theorists propose, appeal to those values. For instance, Mr. Heinrichs suggests, don’t make an equality argument for legalizing same-sex marriage with a religious conservative. Bolster your position instead by suggesting government stay out of the affairs of private citizens.

Disarm your foe by listening

Usually though, he says, the less you say, the better. According to Mr. Heinrichs, the real power play is active listening. “Talk me into it,” he claims, is one of the most powerful phrases in an argument. (Think of a queen holding court while her rambling subjects plead their case.) “When people have to come up with facts and definitions, they tend to moderate their own stance.” So ask lots of questions. Request sources.

And always remember that your real audience is not the yammering boor at the cocktail party, but the bystanders within hearing distance. When you aren’t the one spouting off, you can always say, “Sorry, you haven’t convinced me,” and go fill your wine glass. You have undermined your opponent’s argument, Mr. Heinrichs says, with your dignity intact.




Consider a compromise

But perhaps we have the rewards of arguing all backwards: Why is the person who changes their mind typically seen as the loser? By acquiring knowledge, didn’t they gain the most? This is the thesis that Michael Gilbert, a now retired York University professor, explores in Arguing with People – that the best arguments aren’t about bashing someone else’s opinion, or winning your way, but about understanding and compromise.

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His book is mainly focused on squabbles with our “familiars” – the people we know best and argue with most often, usually about the same topics again and again. The very people, Prof. Gilbert notes, whose relationships we most want to protect from an argument turned nasty.

“Arguing with a real person does not mean getting what you want,” he writes. “It means finding a point on which you are both as satisfied and content as possible.” Employing tricks and subterfuge doesn’t lead to lasting agreement, he says. “If you get a teenager to grudgingly take out the garbage, it is likely to end up on the lawn.” (In our interview, he tells me, “I don’t believe in tricking people into doing things. Besides, my wife is too smart for that.”)

Agree where you can, and go from there

Prof. Gilbert proposes what he calls the Coalescent Argument – start on common ground, begin with agreement and then progress to disagreement. This process can reveal shared values and alternative solutions, Prof. Gilbert says, and shift the focus away from wanting to be right, to being fair.

But a good argument may still be loud and messy, he says. In real life, arguments start and stop and start again. They are marked by passion and, yes, yelling. (To bring the volume down, he suggests fetching your opponent a cup of tea. Or a stiff rum and Coke, as might be the case.)

Once you have decided that the argument is even worth having – and pause to consider this point carefully, Prof. Gilbert advises – then pay close attention, not only to what the person is saying, but how they are saying it, their posture, the hidden communication behind their words. “You do this mostly without even thinking about it,” he writes. “What I am suggesting, is that you will do better if you do think about it.”

Know when to bite your tongue

Steven Sloman has more tools than the rest of us to handle fraught arguments about things like race and social values. And even he admits, “it’s hard as hell.”

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He has a family member in Toronto with a differing view of politics. They don’t speak much any more, not since the 2016 U.S. election. “I have images and thoughts about the relationship that are not very pleasant,” Prof. Sloman says diplomatically.

A cognitive scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island, and co-author of the book The Knowledge Illusion, Prof. Sloman understands how people’s beliefs and values become mired in mental mud. That the more often they hear a statement, the more likely they are to believe it is true. Or that they remember facts that support their beliefs, ignoring those that don’t, spouting opinions they haven’t researched.

“We outsource a lot of our thinking” to those we consider leaders, he says. It is hard to admit how little we actually understand about complex topics. (Try explaining how that unscrubbed toilet works, and realize the limitations of your knowledge.) Everyone, Prof. Sloman says, is susceptible, so be mindful of your own bias.

And yet, even knowing all this, when his relative would give his viewpoint, Prof. Sloman would flare. “If I had a spear and a shield, I would have ready been for battle.” He had trouble taking his own advice – to take a deep breath and ask questions, to let his relative’s own answers expose holes in his position.

“I suffer from all the same hostility and roadblocks.” Prof. Sloman says. “I am my own test subject.”

If you can’t win, sow doubt

In the end, the odds of changing someone’s mind are low, however spindly their argument or skillful your rhetoric. A 2016 Cornell University study calculated that, even during the good-faith debates in the Reddit community “Change My View,” only 30 per cent of opinions were actually changed. (If a person had not budged by the sixth exchange, the study found, they probably never would.)

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A more realistic aim is to “sow doubt,” suggests Mr. Heinrichs. “That’s a win.”

But why give so much of the floor to the hardliners in the first place? The noisiest arguments tend to happen on the extremes, and yet, as both science and polls show, the real movement is made in the middle – by citizens, and family members, whose views are open to new facts and fresh perspectives.

As Prof. Gilbert writes, “Anyone who believes that they can’t be wrong is a fanatic and should be avoided.”

Just make sure you’re not the very fanatic everyone’s avoiding.

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