In Praise of Arguing

We hold in our minds a picture of what we look and sound like in our interactions with others. That picture is based on various assumptions, perceptions, and opinions–primarily our own. Do we really appear to others as we think we do?

Most of us adjust our communication style according to the context in which it takes place–by not behaving in church as we would in a bar during happy hour, for example. Somewhat paradoxically, we often put less effort into communicating with the people closest to us, perhaps because we take those relationships for granted. It is, of course, much easier to charm strangers who mean little or nothing to us: Such encounters do not require any emotional investment on our part.

An argument arises over a difference of opinion. In the realm of human relations, divergent viewpoints are par for the course. The challenge lies in knowing how to express them calmly, without hostility or condescendence. That means focusing not only on what we are trying to convey (content), but how we convey it (delivery). Yes, it’s more work, but the payback, a “good” argument, is invaluable.

Good arguments are exchanges in which the participants follow a few basic rules of engagement, thereby facilitating the emergence of a solution that suits all parties. A “bad” argument, on the other hand, is one that escalates to the point where a discussion is no longer possible and the contentious subject is relegated to the back burner.

The condition sine qua non of good arguing is self-awareness: being attuned to the non-verbal cues we give away while we speak; our choice of words; our tone of voice; our capacity for listening and hearing what our partner is saying; our calmness in the face of repeated provocations.

What I am proposing is that arguing well is a skill that can be learned. You might call it an oxymoron. I see it as a reachable goal. Contrary to popular belief, communication is not about venting–it’s about being heard.

To that end, I have devised an action plan that features five basic rules of effective communication:

The Five Rules of Communication

  • Timing (choose the right moment to have a discussion)
  • Tone (stay calm)
  • Topic (bring up one topic only)
  • I-Statements (start sentences with I, I, I, not you, you, you)
  • Time-Out (call time-out to end a non-productive discussion)

Pretty simple, right? Try it. See what happens. Think of it as learning a new language: the more you practice, the better you speak it.

Make all the mistakes you want, then get back on the horse. Never give up. The stakes are too high.

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