We all argue. The only thing that varies is how often or how much, perhaps. We argue with ourselves (inner turmoil – adhyatmik), with others (external conflicts – adibhautik), with nobody even (the Universe – adidaivik). Arguments are inevitable and yet most of us avoid them as if we really can. No one has taught us how to build your case or work your way out of a disagreement. How strange, come to think of it.
And that’s exactly the theme of my post today: how to build a good argument.
To begin with, imagine the following:
In the elegantly lit palatial lobby of the bank, a group of robbers took control of the situation, holding several people hostage. The air was thick with tension as the armed marauders paced back and forth, their guns trained on the hostages who huddled together in fear. The bank’s security guards lay on the ground, tied up and helpless. One of the masked robbers stood guard by the door, nervously peering out the window for any sign of law enforcement. The sound of police sirens in the distance only served to heighten the tension, and everyone braced themselves for what was to unfold.
This is where you come in (sure, you can wear black sunnies and a tapered business suit). The president personally called you and asked you to get all the hostages released without any bloodshed. What would you do? (hopefully, not call in sick.) Walk in with a box of donuts or a bag full of money? Oh, you would charm the kingpin with your charisma and wisdom? Whatever you would do in that situation is almost exactly what you need to do in building a winning argument in any situation.
I was going to build a case on presenting you with my framework of persuasion and conflict resolution, but I realized I’d lose the argument. So instead, I’ve taken the awesome RISA framework by Bo Seo from his book, Good Arguments. 1
Before I elucidate the RISA framework, I’d like to share with you two most important rules of building a solid argument.
Rule No. 1 – What
That is, what do you want out of this conversation? For, there’s a world of difference between arguing and building an argument (a better example, still). Remember you are the expert negotiator and before you meet the ringleader, you must absolutely know what you are hoping to gain out of that meeting or conversation.
In the absence of such clarity, disagreeable conversations turn into ugly arguments faster than the speed of sound. I call them Mach feuds — fast feud conversations. They start out right but turn unhealthy within minutes. You drive in hungry and confident. You drive out poorer and junkier.
Rule No. 2 – Why
If you are clear about the first rule then you must also know why you wish to broach this topic or confront someone about something. But the “why” doesn’t end here. For any argument to be meaningful and beneficial, you must also genuinely try to understand “why” the other person is doing what they are. It requires listening to them without judging them. You may agree or disagree, that’s immaterial but if you don’t want your argument to turn into a quarrel, you must listen to the other person. Or as Bo Seo says, “It is best to understand the other person’s argument as they see it.” Without that, you won’t be able to fathom, much less accept, their reasons or challenges.
You are now ready to meet the robbers at the bank. Almost. Here’s the RISA framework first. The italicized text is by Bo Seo.
Is it real?
Or is it due to a misunderstanding?
The conversation you are about to have and the argument you want to put forward is based on certain assumptions. There are things both people have presumed and assumptions both have made on behalf of each other. Are your assumptions even true or merely your perception? Could this be a misunderstanding and not a deliberate action?
Firmly establish the foundation of your assumption, conversation, and argument in truth and facts before you approach the other person. Because once you have said something, you can’t unsay it. You can’t undo the damage with words. It helps to be diligent. Remember you are the femme fatale (or the homme fatal) negotiator who is going to unleash your charm offensive. You can’t do that if you don’t have your facts straight.
Is it important?
If intelligence is the ability to respond to any argument, wisdom lies in knowing which arguments to respond to and which parts to respond to.
Arguments are like wildfires. A tiny spark can trigger one but they can get out of control very quickly. Keep dousing. You still end up with a lot of damage, soot, and disruption. It helps to establish if something is really so important to you that you want to confront the other person about it. It should not just be important but important enough that you would want to have a conversation around it. There may be moral, financial, religious or other reasons in the dissolution of a marriage but the most common reason is arguments. When people start bickering over little things, every tiny argument chips away at the relationship one day leaving it dead.
Wisdom is in knowing what to ignore, to let go, for your own peace and for preserving the beauty of your relationship.
Is it specific enough?
Focus on only one point of disagreement in an argument. Do not bring in all the other disagreements you could be having.
No matter how tempted you are to resolve many points of disagreements in one conversation, don’t do it. Focus on just one thing, the most important one. I know it’s taken you a lot of courage to broach the topic and you’d like to cover all that bothers you in one go, I still advise you against it. If you bring up many disagreements, it won’t be a conversation or a meaningful dialog. Instead, it will be an ugly argument where no one wins.
Somewhere a good argument is like good meditation. Just how you bring your mind back to the present moment in meditation, simply keep bringing the conversation back to the topic at hand when you are drawn into an argument. (Despite the similarities, I’d say it’s better to end your day with five minutes of meditation than five minutes of argument.)
Are you aligned?
Do both people want to partake in that conversation? Every disagreement should start with some agreement, that is, what is it that we disagree about?
Some conversations are only hard because the other person doesn’t want to talk about it. And you know, often the reason they don’t want to do so is because they know that either they won’t be understood or they would be reprimanded. So to avoid conflict, people avoid conversations altogether. In a good argument, you establish upfront that we both agree that we disagree about X. And X must be specific and important enough so you may know exactly the outcome you seek or the maximum common ground you can share on the issue.
A lot of the time, it is okay to disagree. If you reflect on “what” and “why”, and follow the framework, you’ll eventually discover that the disagreement wasn’t as mammoth as it had felt at the beginning.
RISA – Real, important, specific and, aligned. Truly the foundation of a good argument.
And while it’s rare, sometimes people only get into an argument because they want to hurt you. They don’t want a conversation or a resolution, they simply want to make it difficult for you. As they say, “It’s very hard to make a man understand something when their job (or joy) depends on not understanding it.” In that case, well, you protect yourself and do what befits your spiritual stature.
As Buddha would say, “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.” 2 None of which is possible without developing a general sense of empathy and mastering the art of holding a mutually healing conversation, the kind where both parties feel heard. It may not lead to an immediate resolution but you will be amazed what magic is possible when people feel heard.
Go on, now, slip into that tux, put on those aviators and free the hostages. (On another thought, kurta-pajama with a monkey cap will also do.)
As communicated a month ago, all the content on os.me is now on pay-nothing-or-whatever-you-like basis. This includes all the courses. There are no paywalls anymore.
As for the comments, I cogitated a fair bit and decided that it’s best to keep them behind a login. This will protect your privacy and ensure that we have a certain quality of people who are commenting. It will shut out the trolls, public search engines, and non-serious users. Henceforth, commenting on os.me will require a comments privilege pass. All the existing life members have been given an automatic lifetime pass and all annual members have already been awarded an annual pass. If your erstwhile annual membership is on automatic renewal, we will be canceling all renewals
And since revenue is not the objective, we’ve brought the price down to a minuscule amount (more like a token of validation of a user’s identity.) Details here.
The good thing is that anyone who can’t afford or doesn’t want to pay, can still read all the posts or view any course in its entirety without any restriction whatsoever. I’m very happy about that.
|↟1||For a book that teaches us to build a crisp narrative in mastering the art of argument, I thought the author could do better in naming his book, which is: Good Arguments: The Power of Debate to Reduce Conflict and Reach Better Outcomes: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard.|
|↟2||This quote is found in Samyutta Nikaya and you can find it here.|
Loving is inevitable. Giving is optional.If my writings have helped you, please consider contributing.
Your thoughtfulness is needed to keep the lights on.
Comments & Discussion
Please login to read members' comments and participate in the discussion.