How to Argue Productively

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

Most arguments aren't productive. But argument can be productive if you do it right.

The First Rule

The first rule of productive argument is the same as in many other areas: Define your goals.

Do you want to discover the truth, understand the other person, or just win a competition?

This blog post applies only to the first two goals: discovering the truth and understanding the other person.

The Second Rule

The second rule of productive argument is obvious but usually ignored: Get a clear idea of what you're arguing about.

Many arguments end up bitter and unresolved because of ignoring the second rule. At the very beginning, identify the areas where you and the other person agree. At the same time, identify as clearly as possible where you disagree.

Focus your attention on the specific points where you disagree. Discuss them one at a time. Don't try to cover everything at once.

The Third Rule

The third rule of productive argument is: Identify the underlying points on which you disagree.

For example, suppose you disagree about whether or not "Person X is a racist."

You might find that you disagree about:

  • What the word "racist" means.
  • What facts justify calling someone a racist.
  • What the facts are in the specific case you're discussing.

At the end of the discussion, you might still disagree but you'll understand why. You'll also know what additional information might help you come closer to agreement.

As an added bonus, you will understand each other better. You will have taken a small step toward making society more rational, peaceful, and tolerant.