Saturday, August 24, 2013

How to Argue Something That Matters

This post, while certainly inspired by discussions both political and religious that I have seen and witnessed, is intended to be a useful guide on making your point and changing minds, regardless of what beliefs you subscribe to on any particular issue. I have observed time and again (and been guilty of it myself, I am sorry to admit) the incessant need, when a debate arises, to WIN, rather than to CONVINCE.

Outside of a formal speech and debate setting, WINNING should not be your ultimate purpose. In a casual debate, if you are defending a cause you believe in very strongly, the goal should be to demonstrate to your conversational partner why they should consider adopting your perspective. When you have a strong moral or ethical conviction that your belief is not just correct but important and good for society, you must try to share it with who you can. You must treat it, then, not as an argument but an advertisement.

The first part of composing a compelling case is introspection. Examine why you believe what you do, and spell it out it in clear, understandable terms. If you can't coherently express why you're right, no one will see that you are. (People who already agree with you do not count. The goal is not to preach to the choir.) You'll want several different points that back you up from an objective and logical standpoint. Remember to include supporting evidence for your supporting evidence, because people will not always immediately see your point.

Remain civil, patient, and friendly throughout the discourse. Under no circumstances should you insult your conversational partner or their beliefs. It does not matter that you don't agree. It does not matter how ridiculous or silly you think they are. As soon as you get rude or hostile, they will become defensive and more attached to their argument. It will become harder than ever to convince them of anything, no matter how well-planned your case is.

Don't allow yourself to become sidetracked. Your partner may have multiple beliefs that you disagree with. Ignore all of them except the one that you are actively discussing. Do not allow their position on other subjects to cloud your perspective on the present one. Anything else is irrelevant and changing the subject will irritate your partner without helping your case.

Research the position that you are disagreeing with. Understand why your conversational partner believes in their side of things. Ask them as many questions as necessary (remaining non-confrontational the whole time) to see where they are coming from. You cannot change someone's mind if you don't know what you're changing it from. By seeing their perspective, you can tailor your presentation of your beliefs so that it is relevant to them, and addresses the points they consider most salient.

This part is very hard, but necessary for genuine intellectual discourse and debate.

Be willing to have your mind changed.

Your partner will be more open-minded if you are. You cannot simply say that it's okay for you to be closed-minded because you're right. Your opponent thinks the same thing. You both have equal conviction, and it's possible that you might be wrong. Accept that, and be open to the evidence they provide for their position. You might change your mind. You might not. But you will understand how to respect your opponent, you will see who this belief matters to them, and through the channel opened by that respect, you will have a better chance of getting through to them.

Be honest and straightforward. Never use evidence that you don't believe in. If you find yourself relying on such evidence, stop and consider again why your hold your belief. Anything you feel is right and good should be defensible with truth and logic.

After you have made your points and listened to your opponent's, if neither of you has changed positions, drop the topic and agree to disagree. Be polite and firm, and express regret that you couldn't find and agreement between yourselves on that subject. Make it clear to your conversational partner that you accept their beliefs even though you don't agree with them, and thank them for listening to you with an open mind. Then walk away from the subject completely. There is a good chance that they will stop to consider your position again, in their own time, and decide to change their mind of their own accord. Many people don't want to feel pressured or talked into a new position, so don't bring the subject up again unless they do first.

Above all, remember this: People believe what they want to. Make them want to agree with you.