Today, it often feels as though the art of arguing constructively is a thing of the past.
How many of us have been engaged in arguments, whether at work, with our spouse, or even online, where the situation has quickly escalated from civil to an all-out civil war?
It seems we’ve forgotten the important rules of engagement and the nuances of debate. All issues are now black and white—right or wrong. There’s no room for grey area.
Yet so many situations exist in the grey zone. If we want to engage productively—to argue constructively—we can think of engagement as a continuum rather than an on/off or yes/no discussion. Here’s how to argue constructively and productively rather than simply spinning your wheels.
Two students of ours were having dinner recently with their brother-in-law and his wife. Going into the evening, they knew the four of them did NOT agree on politics. In fact, they had doubts about finding any common ground at all.
But rather than starting out on the defensive, they decided to approach the interaction in a more engaged, constructive manner. They set their intention to learn from the interaction. When they went to dinner, the couples ended up interviewing each other on their political positions and the path they took to come into those viewpoints.
Rather than arguing and attempting to convince the “other side” that their stance was simply wrong, they took a step back and listened. Both sides agreed to approach it in the same manner. What unfolded was a very productive conversation. In fact, both couples became enlightened to the valid elements from each position because they were open to hearing one another.
In our book, The Heart of the Fight, Judith and I discuss the importance of following the Rules of Engagement. One of the important rules is to “assume goodwill” from your partner in each interaction.
Assuming goodwill isn’t limited to arguments between couples, however. Assuming goodwill is an important skill to bring into any conversation. The truth is, most people genuinely want to get along. They don’t want to hurt others with their viewpoints, but they want to be heard. In fact, yearning to be seen and heard is universal. As human beings, we all yearn to be respected and listened to by our peers.
When we go into arguments, there are often various degrees of consciousness we display. Many people go in with a pre-recorded message in their heads. They know the point they want to make and assume they know the intent of the other party. There are certain ways they approach the interaction and certain methods to go into the cases they argue about. They’ve already played it out in their minds.
Other people argue on the defense. There’s something about themselves they don’t want to see or learn. They may even know there’s a kernel (or more than a kernel) of truth to the counterargument, but they know they don’t want to acknowledge the differing point-of-view.
Arguments aren’t conversations. They aren’t discussions or even debates. Arguments are often high-pitched battles, where neither side walks away with more knowledge. In fact, arguments aren’t even very interesting, because there’s no conclusion to the conversation. If there’s a legitimate subject on the table to explore, then it becomes a discussion.
I have a friend who holds a Ph.D. in economics. We’ve had many debates (and I’ve lost every single one). Through these discussions, my friend has taught me a great deal about global economics, strategy, and new ideas I would have never understood if I mindlessly debated. It’s been interesting to watch him poke holes in my opinions. In many ways, it’s helped me refine my ideas in different ways I would have never thought of, had I simply argued with my buddy.
As I said earlier, engagement can be thought of as a continuum. Conversations in which we’re disengaged may include avoidance, stonewalling, silent treatment, or simply being zoned out. These forms of engagement are even destructive to our relationships.
There’s also mis-engagement. When we avoid conflict by walking on eggshells, sticking to non-personal conversation topics, or engaging in repetitive, non-productive fights, it may feel like we’re engaged, but we’re not engaged constructively. Actively destructive engagement like criticizing, attacking, insulting, and acting defensive will also destroy our relationships.
Instead, constructive, creative engagement means holding active, meaningful, intimate conversations. We express our feelings. We’re genuine and truthful, but approach topics with the hope of discovery and greater fulfillment. On the highest end of the Engagement Continuum are transformative encounters that benefit the world-at-large.
Unfortunately, many conversations exist on the destructive or neutral end of the Engagement Continuum. We may approach arguments with a simple pro or con perspective. We lose the logic in the discussion and break into full arguments.
Instead, we can listen to both sides of a discussion. This doesn’t mean compromising your values or letting go of your perspective. But if you want to be listened to, you must also learn to listen. It’s the power of listening to others that helps arguments become discussions rather than non-productive spats.
When thinking about how to argue constructively, one’s mind turns to the internet. Our interactions on social media, in particular, are prime examples of mis-engagement, disengagement, and destructive interactions.
If we look at many of the arguments people are holding online these days, we see how they’ve become one-sided. The internet prevents us from having a conversation. One of the saddest aspects of today’s dialogue is so many people are busy yelling their opinions, as though their opinions matter more than others.
I’m struck by how many of our students report they’re too busy living life—doing the things that really matter—rather than arguing on the internet and sharing their opinions. It’s not really worth talking about a topic on the internet unless we actually want to change the way people engage in a discussion online.
We’re at an interesting junction in the history of the world and in the way we communicate with each other. There are many everchanging issues to talk about and discuss. Dialogue is important, but we should approach it from an engaged, conscious, responsible place.
Think of your next discussion like an interview, rather than an opportunity to scream your opinions. If you know you disagree with their point of view, interview them. Find out how they came to their current conclusions and why. Use this information to help you discern which areas you are viewing from a limited and mistaken perspective. If we’re not holding a dialogue about our world, we can’t change our world into a conscious, responsible place.
For more ways to engage with others, please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training weekend, where you’ll meet others on their journey toward transformation. We also offer many of our courses online for a special introductory price. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about your world!
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.