The Art of the Argument

Have you found yourself in a stressful argument wondering how to bring it to a constructive conclusion? The nature of a project is often about solving conflicts and figuring out the smartest way to do something with limited resources in a finite time.

Art of the Argument
Art of the Argument

Also as a husband and a father, the nature of any close relationship with those you love involves conflicts and disagreements. I think any parent can relate to this great scene in Daddy’s Home 2 about the argument over the thermostat (especially considering current fuel prices.)

What I’ve learned in my public and private life is it not’s winning the argument that is important but the art of persuasion in coming up with a mutual consensus that benefits both parties.

“A common misconception is that arguments ought to lead to an agreement. What they truly aim to achieve, however, is a consensus – that is, complete shared faith in the outcome. So the goal of an argument is not to win, but to win over your audience.”

I enjoyed reading “Thank you for Arguing” by Jay Heinrichs which shares some really insightful tips on having better arguments.

Some useful keys ideas that I pulled from this book are:

Don’t start arguing until you know what you are seeking to accomplish.

One of the easiest pitfalls in an argument is two people arguing about different core issues. In fact, both could be right in their own way but adrenaline takes-over and people stop listening to the other point of view.

Goals of argument is not to be right but to get it right.

There are three strategies that you can use in an argument, Aristotle suggested Logos, Pathos and Ethos as a classic way of building an argument. Depending on the situation and the other point of view you can use a combination of these 3 approaches:

  1. Logos – Structured reasoning, make the effort to understand the other point of view. Rephrase their argument in your own words and get them to confirm you have summarised it correctly.
  2. Pathos – Showing your passion or emotions in a positive way that your audience can sympathise with is helpful. They will be much more willing to listen and understand you if they can identify with your feelings and understand your motivations.
  3. Ethos or the argument of character – Who you are matters more that what you say. You may have different opinions but you can both respect each other.
    • Virtue – Emphasise the shared values with your audience of the things that you do agree on.
    • Practical wisdom – Can you show some practical experience that demonstrates you know what you are talking about rather then just being theoretical.
    • Humility – Recognise that we don’t know everything and there is something to be learned from another’s point of view even if we don’t agree with it.

Don’t attack the weakest argument as you may win but loose the respect of your audience.

The fact there is a disagreement should mean that there is something both sides should learn. It is a red flag that something needs to be discussed. Your job is to unpack that in a constructive way. you need to create an environment that is open and free.

There is a voice of possibility that there is another point of view that should be considered. We need to be humble enough to realise that we don’t know it all.

The best way to explore new ideas and world views is to ask probing open ending questions, not ones that confirm your worldview.

It’s important to have an open mind, don’t ignore ideas that you don’t like. We all have blind spots so we need to be open to being challenged and defend our ideas. We need to disagree productively and seek first to understand rather than be understood.

Equally, if your audience doesn’t see your point of view it is more likely that they are ignorant of your perspective rather than evil or malicious and you need to do your best to help them understand.

Slow things down – communicate that you are not there for a fight

What do we do if despite our best efforts the argument gets heated? How do we get things moving in a constructive direction? I like this short YouTube clip which looks at how Trevor Noah uses excellent techniques to deescalate tense discussions on the Daily Show.

  1. Take a deep breath. lower your voice, if your audience is talking loudly and try and slow things down.
  2. Upwards inflections are excellent for de-escalating an argument.
  3. Crack a joke to break the tension.
  4. Ask questions instead of making statements – Fully understand the other side of the argument – What they believe as an individual – State back to them in their own words and confirm they agree with your summation.
  5. Probe for inconsistencies in other people’s argument – The socratic method. Understand your audiences position and Frame disagreements in the form of questions.
  6. ‘Yes, but” sometimes its about spliiting hairs and clarifying subtle points..


  1. in every argument you are not necessarily right
  2. Changing your beliefs in line with new evidence is a good thing.
  3. You should be able to test your ideas with someone you disagree with.

Recommended reading:

Thank You for Arguing, Fourth Edition (Revised and Updated): What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us about the Art of Persuasion

Crucial Conversations (Third Edition): Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High”
Joseph Grenny (Author, Narrator), Kerry Patterson (Author), Ron McMillan (Author), Al Switzler (Author), Emily Gregory (Author, Narrator), McGraw Hill-Ascent Audio (Publisher)

Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement Kindle Edition
by Buster Benson (Author)

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