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How to have a constructive argument

In How to Disagree: A Beginner’s Guide to Having Better Arguments, Timandra Harkness explores the best ways to disagree with other people - constructively. She examines how clashes of interests, competing moral visions, factual disputes – and even different personal preferences over which film to watch – can all be managed better.

Disagreement can bring many benefits and help us reach better outcomes – it’s just how we go about it. Here are our top tips for how to fight your corner well and bicker better. Don’t argue, just read it!

1. Listen to what other people have to say

In the heat of the moment – desperate to get our own point across – we can refuse to listen to other opinions. But don’t ignore what your opponent has to say. Claire Fox is the director of the Academy of Ideas, which initiated the Debating Matters competition in schools. She says, “There’s an assumption that the other side of the argument is totally invalid and should be dismissed and shouldn’t even be engaged with.” But, of course, there isn’t just one answer. By listening to others you’re gaining knowledge and insight, as well as refining and improving your own position.

2. Try to feel empathy

It’s not just important to listen to others – but to really hear what they have to say. Kris De Meyer, a Neuroscientist at King’s College London, says often “people take a position” and “they entrench themselves in that position” so that the discussion “ends up in a stand-off and a fight!” Showing empathy helps avoid this. “We should start off with the premise that people that we’re disagreeing with are like ourselves,” Claire Fox says. “Try and work out why they think what they think” and, “you never know, you might change your mind.”

3. Repeat what the other person has said

“Often disagreements escalate because of misunderstanding,” says Kris De Meyer. But there’s a clever way around this: “What can help is to repeat what you think the other person just said,” Chris states, until “the other person says ‘yes, this is what I really meant’. That sort of repetition, back and forth, can help us to avoid misunderstanding.”

4. Catch a clash of interests early

Disputes between neighbours, over boundaries or light-obscuring extensions, can be bitter and protracted. Liz Stokoe, Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University, explains the best approach. “Spot insipient conflict very early” she says, before views become entrenched. If a neighbour confronts you, respond with something cheery and polite. It “takes the heat out of the moment” and “the pace out of any potential upcoming disagreement.” And don’t erect a giant shed without talking to them first.

What can help is to repeat what you think the other person just said, until they say "yes, this is what I really meant".

5. Work out what you agree on

It sounds strange to spend time working out what principles you share when you’re engaging in a disagreement, but “if we don’t agree on any basic values then we really can’t engage in any kind of discussion,” says Clare Chambers, Lecturer of Political Philosophy at Jesus College Cambridge. “The more precise we can be about what we’re disagreeing about and what we’re agreeing about, the better our debate is going to be,” she says. You might be in a shop arguing about what sort of cheese to buy but if you haven’t even established that you both want cheese in the first place, you’re never going to get anywhere.

6. Step out of your comfort zone

Amy Gallo is an expert in workplace dynamics who helps colleagues to have constructive discussions and debates. She instructs people to “really dig in and be uncomfortable” because, she says, the place where you feel uncomfortable “is where perspectives change” and “where people become open to new ideas.” Being out of our comfort zone enables us to be more creative and willing to see things differently. Embrace the creative friction!

7. Don’t make it personal

Arguing doesn’t have to be unkind. In fact, to have a constructive debate you need to keep the personal insults out of it. Social media has enabled indiscriminate, vicious, anonymous attacks and we need to push back. We could learn a thing or two from liberal scientific debate and disputes, says Jonathan Rauch, a Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. His mantra is pretty simple: “Go after the argument, not the person.”

You might be in a shop arguing about what sort of cheese to buy but if you haven’t even established that you both want cheese in the first place, you’re never going to get anywhere.

8. Be rational, not emotional

Deborah Fisher, Professor of Astronomy at Yale University, says we can learn even more from the way scientists do disagreements: “People don’t hang on in an emotional way to their picture of reality and truth,” she says, and “they also allow good critical arguments to change their view.” Try holding your tongue, taking deep breaths and approaching an argument rationally.

9. Be suspicious of yourself

“Learn to be suspicious of yourself,” says Jonathan Rauch. “Just feeling certain you’re right doesn’t make you right – in fact it very likely makes you wrong.” Clare Chambers reiterates this: “Question your own assumptions”, she says, and recognise the limits of your own position.

10. Accept it when you’re wrong

Part of arguing is accepting that, sometimes, you’ll be wrong. “Ideally,” Geoff Mulgan of Nesta says, you “need people to be willing to move on if they’ve lost the argument.” That shows real courage and maturity. And “none of us should feel bad that we were wrong about something,” Deborah Fisher says, “we should just feel excited that we have the chance to improve and learn something new.” Now surely that can’t be wrong?

11. Be a gracious winner

Last, but by no means least, is knowing how to win an argument well. Being a good loser is one thing, but being a good winner is just as vital. Jon O’Brien, the President of Catholics for Choice, says, “How we treat others when we do have a victory is very important. Tolerance does not mean that we like hanging out with people that agree with us. Tolerance is really being with someone who you strongly disagree with.” It’s “recognising that we live on the same street” Jon says, “and there is space” for everyone to “give voice to whatever they believe in.” Hear hear.

"We're going to buy dog biscuits, right? Oh."