Rules For Argumentation: A Guide to Effective Communication

Throughout the years of our academic and work experience, my colleagues and I have discovered that effective communication is essential for productive dialogue. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when you find yourself in an argument.

1. Give your interlocutor’s arguments the benefit of the doubt. Avoid strawmanning your interlocutor’s argument by reducing it to something easier to refute. This is not productive, nor is it intellectually honest. Frame opposing arguments in their best possible light to properly engage with their contents.

2. To verify that you’ve correctly understood someone else’s argument, try repeating it back to them. Rephrasing someone’s argument in your own words and asking your interlocutor if this is an accurate description of their position is a great way to enhance understanding and avoid miscommunication.

3. Remember that although your interlocutor may be your opponent, they are not your enemy. Most of the time, they are a reasonable and well-intentioned person, just like you. Avoid ascribing immoral motivations to your interlocutor or attacking their character. These are not productive solutions to resolving the crux of the argument.

4. If you want to change the hearts and minds of those who disagree with you, then preserve your interlocutor’s ego. Avoid attacking their character or making them feel stupid and inferior. This will only cause them to become defensive and less willing to participate in a fruitful discussion.

5. Set aside your own ego by accepting uncertainty and confusion as your friend. In the famous words of Socrates, “All I know is I know nothing.” It’s okay to be confused and have questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions for further clarity. Asking questions when you’re confused shouldn’t be embarrassing and doesn’t make you any less intelligent. Instead, it shows your humility and strength of character to admit your uncertainty.

6. To fully engage with your interlocutor, put yourself in their position and try to understand why a given conclusion makes sense to them. Avoid operating from an ideological and narrow-minded perspective.

Actually try to learn something from an argument rather than intending to prove your pre-existing conclusions. Socrates calls this uncomfortable state of unknowing when we break through our previously held perspectives “dysphoria” and says this is where true learning begins. When we set aside our biases, we can experience a genuine philosophical discussion characterized by exploration, learning, and growth.

7. Last but not least, be kind and respectful. Your interlocutor is also a human being fighting their own battle of which you know nothing. Treat them like a friend and pay them a friend’s respect.

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Matthew McKenna

Matthew McKenna

When facing hardship and burned by flame / We look to myth for where to aim / As stories of old were understood / Extract the gold and make it good.