The Art of Arguing

Democracy depends on disagreement without demonization, but that’s easier said than done. Philosopher David E. Smith has tips for how to talk with others about things that matter.

  • August 19, 2021
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  • How-to
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  • By David E. Smith

David E. Smith is an expert in disagreement. As a recent member of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau, Smith presented a talk online and at community at venues around the state, “Civil Conversation in an Angry Age.” His talk explores where conversations about important issues go wrong—why opinions inflame our emotions, leading to anger, fights, and even the end of relationships.

It’s a subject Smith knows about firsthand. His father was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher, and Smith grew up with deep religious convictions and a missionary’s zeal for converting lost souls. But over time, he began to have serious doubts about the faith. On the eve of getting tenure at an evangelical liberal arts college in Indiana, he decided he couldn’t, in good conscience, affirm the inerrancy of the Bible—which was a requirement for tenure. “I did it to be authentic, to be free,” he says. He moved to Seattle and since then has devoted much of his time to helping people interrogate their own convictions, and have better, more productive conversations in the process. Here are his suggestions for discussing life’s most important questions, especially with those we might disagree with.

— David Haldeman, Editor

1. Engage in deep reflection first.

Before having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you about something important, I recommend engaging in deep reflection first about your own preparedness for the conversation. Ask yourself, “Am I really ready for this? ” I have personally jumped into difficult conversations without any real reflection ahead of time, assuming that I was ready emotionally, but was not. Those conversations did not go well! Deep reflection involves assessing our own emotional state in general and, in particular, how the issue at hand affects our emotions. Is this a good time to talk about something that stirs up emotion? In general, am I experiencing inner peace? Am I going through a hard time right now and might that experience make a difficult conversation unwise? And does this topic stir up too much emotion within me at this particular time? Deep reflection also involves a conscious decision ahead of time to demonstrate self-control and respect no matter what.

2. Pick your conversation partners carefully.

Not everyone is a candidate for civil disagreement on every topic. We want so badly to be able to share our perspectives on things that matter with everyone in our lives, but that is just not realistic. Not everyone can handle our views of things, and sometimes sparing them is an act of love—toward them and toward ourselves. How do we know who is a good conversation partner and who is not? If there is a history of interaction, then we probably have a good feel for whether this person is able and willing to have a difficult conversation, but sometimes it depends on the topic. How have they handled disagreement in the past? Have they indicated a willingness to discuss difficult topics? Have they expressed their perspective on the topic at hand and what impression have they given us about the potential for meaningful dialogue? We may not always know who is and who is not a good conversation partner, and we will certainly have to take some risks along the way.

3. Serve an “appetizer.”

Not sure who is ready for your beliefs and who is not? Share your view of an issue that you consider to be minor–something with which they will probably disagree but will not react too negatively. If they handle that well, then share your views of things that matter more. If they choke on the appetizer, do not serve the meal!

4. Identify the purpose of the conversation.

Why am I thinking about having this conversation? What is the goal? Do I want to persuade, win a debate, dialogue, or clarify? We can wander aimlessly if we have not figured this out ahead of time. We want our conversations to be productive, not just civil, and knowing the purpose can help with that.

5. Be open-minded and agree more.

Many of us have deep convictions about religion, ethics, politics, and other topics. There is nothing wrong with that, if we recognize that the depth of our conviction has no necessary connection to the truth! I can feel certain about something and be wrong. Do we value truth more than our own beliefs or our own beliefs more than truth? If the former, then we should be willing to listen to others because they may turn out to be right. Our beliefs about truth are not synonymous with truth because we are all wrong about something. The problem is, we do not know what we are wrong about! A desire for truth in every area of life helps us to acknowledge when we are wrong and to grow personally. And if truth matters more than winning a debate, we should be able to acknowledge when others are right about something. Agreeing with the other when we honestly can goes a long way toward removing tension from the conversation. After all, we don’t disagree with them about everything, do we?

6. Understand how beliefs are formed.

How can they believe that? Sometimes the beliefs of others are astonishing to us! Remember that with rare exceptions, people do not choose their beliefs like they choose their behaviors. Our beliefs form naturally within us as we live our lives and are exposed to many different inf luences—like upbringing, education, evidence, and all our life experiences. If you had lived that person’s life, you just might believe those things, too.

7. Be intentionally respectful.

I have come to see respect as a recognition of the full humanity of the other regardless of identity (race, gender, age, etc.) or belief system (political, religious, etc.). Underneath our differences, we are all human with the same basic needs. We all need food, water, shelter, clothing, opportunity, respect, and love. We need to display belief in our common humanity in our interactions.

8. Let go of the need to win.

I am learning that I do not always need to have the last word. I do not have to win the debate. This is hard for me! If other people do not or cannot see where I am coming from, so what? We want others to agree with us or at least affirm our reasonableness, but not everyone can or will do that for us. If the people in your life will not affirm you, find new people! We generally cannot find new family, but we can make new friends who will be supportive.

9. Listen more.

Many of us love to talk. We love to share our opinions about everything! I am amazed at how often we interrupt each other. Sometimes interruption is fine. If someone will not stop talking, if waiting will cause my point to lose its effect, or if I am afraid that I will forget, then interruption is usually appropriate. But I think that we interrupt each other too often. We just cannot wait to respond to the other person’s point! Perhaps we could all slow down and listen more. What’s the hurry?

10. Monitor our emotions and display virtue.

If we only had more self-control, humility, forbearance, and courage! Developing these virtues is a lifelong pursuit. Our emotions can take over so easily and the virtues fall by the wayside. I am not talking about virtue signaling. I am talking about displaying virtue sincerely. Self-control will help with our emotions. Humility will inspire us to listen to others. Forbearance will cause us to overlook some offenses. And courage will help us to share our perspectives with others who may be dominant. The Buddha said that we become what we think if we think about it a lot, and Aristotle said that we become what we do if we do it a lot. I suggest combining those insights to strengthen the virtues.

These suggestions should help all of us to have respectful and productive conversations. Despite our best efforts, however, not all conversations will go well and not all relationships are destined to last forever. Do your best. Can anyone do better than that? And remember that people sometimes surprise us with their willingness to dialogue, even change their minds. Perhaps the person you have in mind fits that description. Perhaps you and I do, too.

David Smith holds a PhD in religious studies from Temple University and currently teaches at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Washington. He was on Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau delivering a talk, “Civil Conversation in an Angry Age.”

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