How to Have an Argument (More of a Debate Really)

Monty Python showed us how not to have an argument.

An argument is more than the automatic nay-saying of what the other person said. Beyond that, however, there is a considerable amount of subtlety and complexity in conducting an argument.

First off, I should make clear that in talking about arguments, I am discussing sincere efforts by people to have a constructive discussion that will lead to a meaningful, mutual understanding. I am not including such things as acts of bickering that are just trying to score points over someone. Trying to defeat someone is not an argument; it’s simply a quarrel.

The automatic nay-saying of what the other person said is quarreling, and it is mostly a waste of everyone’s time. I feel I have to stress this because many people still seem eager to waste everyone’s time by offering little more than versions of “nuh uh.” Even elaborate, wordy versions of “nuh uh” are still automatic nay-sayings, and when you deconstruct what some people say, that’s all they are saying — “nuh uh.”

So, how does one debate constructively? And yes, at the risk of sounding posh, I will use the word “debate.” The art of formal debate isn’t taught much anymore. It certainly wasn’t taught at my joke of a high school. In a formal debate, people take a contrary position but attempt to have a constructive discussion that will lead to a meaningful, mutual understanding. That means listening to the other person’s statements and responding to them with meaningful and substantive statements.

We shouldn’t restrict such civil and intelligent behaviors to a formal debate. We should listen to people and respond substantively to them all the time. We also shouldn’t look for disagreements; we should be more focused on areas of agreement. Certainly, social media and online forums tempt us to reply with simplistic “nuh-uhs,” but we need not lower ourselves to that level.

I could write a long article about how to constructively debate with other people, but I thankfully need not reinvent the wheel. Caroline Hopper and Laura Taveres wrote an article for The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley entitled, “Is There a Better Way to Have an Argument?” You can read the entire article here, but I will repeat their five bullet points.

  1. Pay attention to context
  2. Take winning off the table
  3. Prioritize relationships and listen passionately
  4. Embrace vulnerability
  5. Be open to transformation

It’s a great checklist, and I encourage people to read their article in full and follow their advice. As a philosopher in the continental approach, I see the value of these five points in my reading, writing, and teaching. As a person, I see the value of these five points for everyday dealings with other people.

Those five points are also very valuable advice when being online, including here on Medium. This platform provides wonderful opportunities to interact with other people in constructive discussions that could lead to meaningful, mutual understandings. Most people on this platform take advantage of those opportunities. I try to. Obviously, not everyone does.

I don’t pretend to know everything or always be correct. I would like to be shown that which I don’t yet realize because then I will learn more than I knew before. Happily, there are many sincere people who respond to what I write with constructive statements that lead to meaningful, mutual understandings. Sadly, there are also many insincere people who respond to what I write with various versions of “nuh uh.” The former is helpful; the latter is not.

When people respond to one my articles and offer constructive statements responding to what I wrote, I will respond. I owe them that. If I disagree with them, I will say here is where I agree with you and here is where I disagree with you and here is my alternative to what you stated and why I think my alternative works better. When people reply with various versions of “nuh uh,” I won’t allow them to waste my time.

Read and listen, consider what you read and heard, don’t quarrel, build a relationship, be open to transformation. That’s how to have an argument.


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