Building arguments – part 1

Flattered to be asked how I build an argument, I’m here to write up some of it. Humbled, is the word, because I know that I am not the best out there – though I do play to win. This is why part 1, because I want there to be more thinking and writing on this.

There are a zillion types of arguments, and often confused with fights. My first rule is to never enter into an argument that will inevitably degenerate into a fight. (It’s about chess moves, one plays 3-5 moves ahead, and takes a call). Walk away, because binaries are boring.

Also, do not wrestle with a pig, they are right when they say that. You get dirty and the pig has fun. That means, quickly identify toxic people, narcissistic people, people who enjoy collecting wounds and scars for their own games. Don’t engage with them. Don’t even sit at the table where their game is laid out. Walk away.

Walk away again, when you know you cannot win this game. A draw is better than a loss. Even better is the timing of walking away – walk away when you appear to be winning. Every card player – and stock market player knows this. Walk away when you are still ahead.

Enter into an argument only when you know it is going to help you – either reach a stronger position, or help you learn something. Control the argument, and this is not always a level playing field. But why engage if you don’t want to win? Play transparently, but then we can talk about fair or ethical arguments in part 2 or 7, eventually. For now, let’s talk about the goals of an argument. Argue, to learn. This is my goal. What is yours?

So here are my rules for an argument – one, leave your ego behind. Two, ignore your priors. Three state the case/hypothesis clearly. Four, Prepare well. Five, understand the context. Six, understand the forcefields. Seven, understand the audience for your argument. Eight, Remember your own goals for the argument – if you are playing to learn, leave the edges ambiguous, if you are playing to win, then pack a few punches, if you are engaging to make a friend, then leave sparring space, if you are arguing to gain supremacy, then keep raising the level of the game (and make sure you are on top). If you are arguing to practice, as I do often, have your tools to the ready, and be prepared to build more tools mid battle. (there are more, but then it’ll be a whole chapter). Nine, don’t over-invest in any argument. Ten, win or lose, find satisfaction in a part of it that made you a better person, and work on the flaws you found in yourself. Else, what’s the point of those minutes spent in the argument.

I then remembered that I was an evangelist for the case study method, and twitter is a river rich with arguments to be picked and played. Outrage of the Day, we used to call it in the old days, and many of us frolicked in its waters, just for fun. And to make friends. Now, there are bots, and trolls, and other unfriendly creatures, so we choose with more care. It took me a minute to find one to join. History, as it is weaponised, taught, and propagated to form narratives is always a rich seam, and there’s always an argument on about it. I talk education, so that delineated the scope already. I joined an argument about history and how it is taught.

And this is what I learnt about one style of winning an argument:

One, do not escalate. Especially if you do not know how far your opponent is willing to take it. The principle of never underestimating your opponent implies that you do not know how far they will go to win. So do not raise the stakes.

Two, it is always easier to take the low road, so leave that to your opponent. The high road is going to move more distant, and the bigger wins are on the high road. Do not stop them when they take the low road, till they are well begun on it, and then call them out. Count the points – now.

Three, ignore the sabotage of your argument. The opponent will try to pull it in directions where they can win. Don’t go there. Sometimes it is by doing things indicated in two above – making it personal, bringing past incidents into the discussion, whataboutery and the rest of that pantheon. Don’t engage on that, stay on message with yourself.

Four, having circled the arena and established that you are actually in an argument, start looking for common ground. Do not let an argument degenerate into animosity. Agree, and flip them. Slowly increase the range of agreements. This is a master tactic and takes some practice. Done too soon, or too obviously, the opponent will get to aggressive. Done gently, this brings the opponent into your emotional range and the situation does not overwhelm you. Now you are ready to win.

Five, give wriggle room to your opponent if you value the relationship. A win must be obvious, not necessarily stated. Sometimes tactical silence is a win. (Often it is not, and even if it is – you may fester for years with a sense of “I should have said it straight out then”) Deal with it, you make a choice and you live with it. Remember rule 1 – unless you are the pig that enjoys wrestling in the mud, you want to put the argument to rest sooner rather than later, preferably on the winning side.

Six, Slamdunk when the opponent uses the wriggle room to enter the shared space you found earlier. The shared space is your win.

Seven, do, take a moment, and declare a win. It’s satisfying.

Finally, of course, a word of caution. This is not the only way, but it is a safe way to argue. And in the process, if one keeps listening, one learns a lot more than if alone. An argument is useful only if it improves your position, either including the opponents’ arguments, or working them to find stronger responses. It’s okay to change one’s view, and to evolve – and an argument just adds muscle each time you exercise it.