Winning arguments deftly

Differences of opinion can lead to unpleasant exchanges. How can you handle dissent?

July 26, 2015 05:00 pm | Updated 05:42 pm IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Of late, dinner time at home has been fraught with tension. You bristle every time your parents talk about your career prospects or hope that you will “settle down” soon. At work, you find that your boss’ way of doing things seems to clash with your style of working. With friends, differences in opinion on trivial matters, such as what movie to see, balloon into unpleasant exchanges. At times, the whole world seems to cross swords with you. Or, is it just you?

Shakespeare epitomised the fiery youth’s penchant for argument by describing him as, “Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel.” The fact that you have opinions on a range of issues from women’s empowerment to gay rights to global warming shows that you are an engaged citizen who cares about the state of the world.

However, you must remember that while you are entitled to your views, others may see the world through different lenses. Whatever your stance on an issue is, being dogmatic is more likely to cloud your vision.

Furthermore, your chances of being listened to may diminish even though you may be heard. Like persuasion, disagreeing is a skill that can be deftly executed, and, like most other skills, it can be honed with practice.

Avoid dogmatism Sir William Osler, the late Canadian physician who was one of the founders of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is known to have quipped, “The greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism.” Thus, while you may speak with conviction on an issue, you always have to be open to listening and understanding other points of view. The moment you shut out dissent as being untrue or nonsensical or bigoted, simply because it contradicts your position, your conviction turns into dogmatism.

Even though you may not be aware of it, you may be exuding an “I am always right” stance that is likely to make people turn away from you.

So, before disagreeing with others, it might be prudent to first mirror what they said so that they know that you have listened. Acknowledging what a person has said does not mean that you agree with them, but it tells the other person that you have heard them out. Saying “I believe you think that…” or “According to you…” can help. Once the other party feels that they have been listened to, they are more likely to give you a fair hearing.

Further, this practice allows people to clear up misunderstandings that occur more frequently than we think. You may think that you know what your boss wants or said, but by repeating her words, you clear the air of possible misinterpretations. Thus, you give the other person a chance to clarify in case the two of you differed slightly in your understanding.

Stay on course After making it clear that you have gotten the gist of your friend’s argument, you may state your position. But even as you refute your friend with counterarguments, make sure that you stick to the issue without referring to tangential topics. In addition, try and maintain a measured tone and avoid sarcasm and insinuations. Also, be aware of your body language. Rolling your eyes, shaking your head or turning away can convey hostility even though you hold your tongue. Talking in a slow, respectful manner while making eye contact will give you time to think as you make a reasoned argument. And, most importantly, do not get personal by castigating the other person. Comments like, “You’re a conservative prude,” or “You’re an irrational bigot” are likely to make the other person defensive, which in turn may lead to other labels being applied to you. We don’t want an argument which can be a productive exchange to degenerate into name-calling matches. Unfortunately, even our parliamentarians often fall prey to such pointless mud-slinging.

Furthermore, do not expect people to change their minds the moment you state your case. You must realise that other people, too, have deep-seated convictions that cannot necessarily be dislodged overnight. In fact, for people to come around on touchy subjects takes time. Make your argument and then let the case rest for sometime. If you have made a reasonable argument in a calm, collected manner, chances are that your words will ring in the other person’s ears when they think about this issue again. On the other hand, if you lose your temper, it makes it doubly hard for the other party to think rationally. They may then react to your anger instead of responding to the content of what you are saying. Even as you give your ‘adversary’ or ‘opponent’ in your verbal duel time to ponder the issue, you must learn when to lay your arguments to rest. As the English philosopher, Sir Franics Bacon says, “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”

The author is Director, PRAYATNA.


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