How to argue intelligently

There are few things as frustrating as trying to get someone to see your point of view.

Working in the world of agriculture where you make up less than 2% of the population, means you can often find yourself misunderstood or at odds with how the majority of the population views your profession or the science behind what you do.

We argue because we want people to see our point of view, that we are right, to show them the light. But does arguing get us anywhere?

As John Stuart Mill wrote in ‘On Liberty’, “He who knows only his side of the case, knows little of that.” To be aware, well-rounded, and equipped to argue intelligently we must have viewpoint diversity. Whether we admit it or not, we are all biased to a certain extent so when arguing different viewpoints we need to find ways to engage each other on a constructive level in order to advance the discussion.

Survival Tip

Philosopher Daniel Dennett asks, “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

He suggests the following when constructing critical commentary:

  • You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  • You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  • Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

In 1965, Susan Sontag, American writer, filmmaker, teacher and political activist, noted that there are three main techniques for refuting an argument:

  • Find the inconsistency.
  • Find the counter-example.
  • Find a wider context.

Current research points to the following ways you can be a better arguer:

Respond rather than react

Philosophy scholars Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber wrote in their paper on argumentative theory that “People who have an opinion to defend don’t really evaluate [others’] arguments in a search for genuine information, but rather consider them from the start as counterarguments to be rebutted.”

Keeping an open mind allows you to evaluate and analyze so you can clearly, concisely and coherently respond rather than knee-jerk react and utter off-the-cuff remarks and/or unfounded or unproven facts – after which it’s a free-for-all where the conversation spirals unproductively out of control.


Separate your emotions

If things spiral out of control and you let your emotions get the better of you, you’re providing lots of fuel for your opponent to get the upper hand. Emotions are the tiny crack that someone can wedge themselves into just enough that eventually they’ll be able to shove that door wide open – and blow your emotionally charged response right out of the water. Instead, remain composed, calmly present your side and provide points as to why your opponent is incorrect. Another emotional tactic: put on a smile or laugh to diffuse a tense situation.

Use tact and respect

The point of an argument is to resolve an issue and move on – not to hold a schoolyard brawl.

The goal shouldn’t be to smack-talk, hurl insults or disrespect but rather find common ground on which you can build a mutually better way forward.

Learn to listen

As the old saying goes, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Present your point then stop and listen to your opponent’s point of view. Ask questions to help you better understand where they’re coming from. Not only do good questions help you reach an understanding and broaden your point of view, they’ll force your opponent to really assess and consolidate their thoughts and opinions.

Alternatively, know what you’re talking about. Who doesn’t hate the guy or gal who talks just to hear themselves talk, but really has no idea what they’re talking about?

Author Maria Popova notes, “…there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to ‘conquer’ but to ‘come at truth’, not to be right at all costs, but to understand and advance the collective understanding.”

In the end the goal is to transform your opponent into a more receptive audience to further the discussion and outcomes in the best interests of Canada’s agriculture industry.


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