How to Argue Persuasively

Be like Socrates.

Having just written a post about why people don’t argue anymore, it occurs to me that maybe people  have never learned how to argue, or have forgotten how to argue in the wake of all the rudeness and noise that surrounds us. Arguing persuasively is a skill, and a good one to have. Making a good argument can persuade a friend to see the world in a new spiritual light, or if you really apply yourself, even persuade an auto mechanic to give you $10 off on an oil change.

These  skills  help you argue persuasively. I hope they help. If you have additional advice, please feel free to comment!

  1. Start with love.  Your opponent in an argument is not an enemy. If you love and respect your opponent, there’s a chance you might win him over. If you intimidate or belittle him, you stand almost no chance. And remember, too, that love expresses itself not only in your words, but also in your tone of voice and body language. One of the best ways to express love and respect: listen attentively.
  2. Don’t get personal. The more you stick to the issues, the less likely you are to offend someone (by being personally hostile) or to make your opponent suspicious (by seeming to butter him up).  For some people, even mild personal criticism shuts down any possibility of them having an open mind.
  3. Don’t infer motives. Have you ever had a person explain to you why you think the way you do? It can be very aggravating, especially if that person is 180 degrees off. It’s very hard to know why people hold the argumentative positions they do — it has to do with their temperament, their experiences over decades, and perhaps something that happened only last week. Rather than think the worst about your opponent’s motivations, ask what has led him to that point of view. The response may surprise you, perhaps pleasantly.
  4. Don’t get defensive. Taking criticism can be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s often a good pill to swallow. None of us is perfect. The point of an argument is not simply to win someone over to your point of view; instead, an argument is an opportunity to expand your insight and understanding. Losing an argument makes us better human beings if in doing so we learn something about ourselves or an issue that we hadn’t fully considered. If you approach an argument in a spirit of love, you will interpret your opponent’s criticism as an attempt to help you. What’s more, if you lose an argument with grace, you may impress your opponent enough to win the next one on the strength of that alone.
  5. Don’t yell. Adding volume to your argument does not make it stronger. If anything, yelling diminishes your credibility.
  6. Don’t stoop to name-calling.  Name-calling shuts down discussion and leads only to bad feelings and polarization. Name-calling, applying labels to people, happens all too often in the public forum. We should not follow that example.
  7. Avoid the appeal to hypocrisy (tu quoque/“you also”) fallacy. This is a commonly used tactic of countering an opponent’s assertion by pointing out his actions contradict it, for instance: “How can you alcohol is bad  when you drink beer all the time?”  The first problem here is that a person’s behavior (or opinion) does not disprove the truth of his statement: Even the worst hypocrites among us can tell the truth, even if they don’t act on their own wisdom. Second, the “you also” response immediately puts your opponent on the defensive and often turns the argument into a shouting match.

What advice do you have for making persuasive arguments?