Crucial Conversations QA

How to Argue Civilly

Dear Joseph,

My father often peppers his speech with declarations like “Obama is a Marxist” or “Eighty percent of Americans don’t pay taxes.” I can sometimes leave the conversation and look up details of what he calls “facts,” but in the moment I don’t have any tangible information; just a deep-rooted intuition that he is repeating something he read. In most instances, I haven’t researched the topic at hand and he can quote a source, which leaves me extremely uncomfortable and looking for a way to escape his monologue. What can I say in response to these (sometimes outlandish) claims?

Swimming in Story

Dear Swimming,

Yours is a common complaint these days. We seem to think that people trafficking in poorly informed opinions is a new phenomenon. It isn’t. Fake news is as old as news. People spouting truths based on shaky logic has as storied a history as bloodletting and the AMC Gremlin (If you’re under 40, Google it. You’ll agree!).

The first thing I encourage you to do is humble yourself. Re-read your question and you’ll see clues that you suffer from the same problem your father does. He thinks he’s right and offers dubious data to support his view. You’re sure he’s wrong but have thin data to support your conviction. Welcome to humanity. You’re more likely to make progress if you accept that you resemble him more than you’d like to admit. And so do I.

The sobering truth is that we don’t arrive at many of our most cherished opinions starting with a blank page. Whether we are Christian or Muslim, Conservative or Liberal, boxers or briefs, our ideas are shaped more by the tribes we identify with than the facts we sift through.

This idea first gained notice in the 1950s when psychologists Hastorf and Cantril asked college students from two rival colleges to watch film of a recent American football game between their schools. Students were asked to objectively study the film to identify all the penalties that should have been assessed against each team. The best predictor of their judgments was not the clarity of the offense—it was the school they attended! Subjects reported seeing half as many illegal plays by their own team as did students from their opponent’s college1. We are often unconscious of the premises of our own convictions.

Humility is the most potent antidote to conflict. As unreasonable as your father’s views may be, you likely hold many that have not been reasoned through either. Understanding this disconcerting concept helps me approach others with patience rather than judgment.

Given that we’re all often unconsciously irrational, what are we to do? It sounds like your frustration is as much about your own uncertainty as it is about your father’s exaggerated sense of certainty. If so, here are some thoughts you might consider for moving your relationship to greater peace and, perhaps, periodic dialogue:

  • Decide what you really want. If you don’t want to talk politics with your dad, tell him. Set a boundary. If the work involved with making these conversations healthier doesn’t seem worth it to you, fess up to him. Say something like, “Dad, you and I have many different political opinions—and I notice I don’t enjoy exploring those with you. It brings up a lot of emotions I’d rather not deal with in the short time we have to spend together. Can we focus on the things we both enjoy?” If he transgresses the boundary, it’s up to you to remind him, “Dad, you’re breaking our agreement about political topics. Would you please honor it?”

If, on the other hand, you want to talk politics but in a more satisfying way, let me share some good news. In fact, this is some REALLY good news: It turns out it’s possible to influence even those of us with stubbornly-held opinions! The problem is you’ll have to do the opposite of what most usually do. As former secretary of state Dean Rusk once said, “The best way to persuade others is with your ears, by listening to them.” Research2 shows that if you ask others to not simply state their opinion, but probe into the details of why they think their opinion works, they tend to become less certain about it. That’s why the following suggestions are so counter-intuitive, but effective.

  • Agree on ground rules. Next time your dad launches into a verbal Op-Ed, pause the action for a moment and ask for some ground rules. For example, “Dad, I’m actually very interested to understand what you think and why you think it. But only if we can do it in a way that works for me, too. For example, I’d like to hear you out. I’d like to ask a lot of questions about how your idea works, and why you believe it—not just repeating the belief itself. My goal isn’t to be offensive, it’s to understand. Would that be okay?” If he agrees, add the second ground rule. “Then, Dad, I’ll expect you to offer me the same opportunity. I want a chance to share my view—if I have one—and will invite you to probe and test it all you want. I don’t want you to argue against it. I just want you to ask questions so you understand my thoughts. If this works for you, I’m all in. If not, perhaps we can just go get a taco together.” If he agrees, hold him (and yourself) accountable to the ground rules! If you or he starts to criticize or attack rather than probe, call out the offender and enforce the ground rules.
  • Get curious. Genuinely curious. Try to approach the conversation like an interested scientist. Suspend judgments and frame your work as: “Discover why a reasonable, rational and decent human being would think this way.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, you will find an answer that confirms the premise. You won’t necessarily agree. You may not buy the logic. You may see flaws in the other person’s choice of data. But when all is said and done, you’re likely to have a feeling of respect for how the life experiences, resources, associations, values, etc. of the other person brought him to think the way he thinks. And you’ll be the richer for it. Even if you end the conversation as political opponents, you are likely to feel like respected ones.
  • Validate values. Along the way, you are likely to discover that your differences are differences of strategy more than purpose. You’ll discover that where you are trying to achieve safety, the other person values freedom. Where you value personal responsibility, they value compassion. When they pound the table for opportunity, you’ll raise your voice for equality. But if you listen carefully, you’ll discover you both care about both values. You simply differ in how to achieve them, or in what order. When you notice this similarity, call it out. It will lubricate the conversation and foster intimacy even with an adversary.
  • Share your truth not the truth. Finally, remember humility. Remember that your views are likely pocked with inconsistencies, suspect data and tribal loyalty as well. Use statements like “I believe” or “I’ve concluded” rather than “The fact is” or “As everyone knows.”

Your question is a more urgent one today than ever. I hope these ideas help you find a peaceful path to candid disagreement!


1 Hastorf, A. H. & Cantril, H. J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 49, 129–134 (1954). | Article | OpenURL | | ChemPort |

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

8 thoughts on “How to Argue Civilly”

  1. I’ve recently read of two exercises that may help us with this.

    1) Read a book that champions a point of view that you disagree with. Conservatives read books written by conservatives and liberals read books by liberals. Change it up. Read a book written by the other “side.”

    2) I read that in law school the law students are required to do an exercises where they argue both sides of a case. It helps them to see things from the other point of view. I think we could all benefit from doing this.

  2. I’m a member of an question group. However people ask questions like why do most women, men, religious, religion1, religion 2, atheists, cats, dogs, blah blah blah. I ask them where they got their statistics; or what does most, or force mean. Some look them up. Some continue to ask why people are forcing others to…

  3. I really appreciated these techniques to both avoid arguments and to better relate to others. I find that this type of discourse and discussion seem to be lost in the headlines of today (see, there I am, not citing a source for my observation “fact”) and we gravitate towards sides adhering to tribal loyalties. It would seem to me that these are placed above a conscious goal of getting to the correct conclusion, regardless of “source” – much like the college team study cited in the article. I hope that I can use these approaches to have more reasoned discussion; especially in light of the expected family gatherings in the upcoming months! 🙂

  4. I grew up in a politically aware and engaged family. We loved to argue, and sometimes it got fierce. Why did we live to argue another day? First rule: do not disparage your opponent or the subject of the argument. This is the weapon of those who have nothing but emotion, usually visceral hate, to substanstiate what they claim as truth. Second, use only current events to make your point. You may see it differently than your opponent, but it is today’s news, not from a day before one of you was born. It was exhilarating to vehemently express our POV. I pity those who have never done it.

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