clifton myra arguing by thelastminute at flickr

In a previous article I discussed the effect on the environment of the domestic cat. As I wrote the piece I made a mental note to not get into a discussion on the subject. Why? Was it because I was afraid of supporting my research? Actually, no, that was not the reason at all. The subject was always going to emotive and any debate was going to be no more than an argument and I decided a while ago not to get involved in arguments.

The Oxford English dictionary defines an argument as "an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one." This is opposed to a debate ("a formal discussion on a particular matter in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward and which usually ends with a vote"). Immediately there is a clash or definitions there as an argument is also "a reason or set of reasons given in support of an idea, action or theory." The difference is in the emotion and it is this emotional discussion I avoid.

The author Deborah Tannen points out that modern society has become more confrontational. "Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention – an argument culture."

The Argument Against

Perhaps the book that influenced me most on this subject however was written in 1936 and is the classic 'How To Win Friends And Influence People' by Dale Carnegie. Carnegie devotes a complete chapter to this subject and says, "I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument – and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes." Frequently in an argument both parties are keen to persuade the other of their point of view and will not relinquish their position.

Dale Carnegie again: "You can't win an argument. You can't because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph."

I maintain your success is temporary and hollow. In the past I have won arguments and found I felt good for such a short time. Carnegie quotes Benjamin Franklin: "If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent's good will."

Do you think you have persuaded your opponent to your point of view? Think again, for, as Dale Carnegie puts it: "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." Or as John Morley wrote, "You have not converted a man because you have silenced him."

Have you ever been involved in a heated discussion about who would win, for example, the World Series, World Cup, Superbowl or Formula 1 season? Perhaps you have been careless enough to get involved in one of the most common and destructive arguments with someone you love, perhaps a partner or spouse. Was it worth the effort to win the argument? What did you gain? Nothing changed except perhaps it put tensions on a relationship. Ninety nine percent of all arguments are completely pointless.

Subjects traditionally to be avoided are religion and politics, as they seem to create the most destructive discussions.

Is it so good to be right if the price is the destruction of the bedrock of your life?

listen to me by dave goodman at flickr

Be Reasonable

So am I saying you should never discuss differing opinions? No, not at all. John Stewart Mill wrote in his 'Essay On Liberty,' "However true an opinion might be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth."

The difference is reason and respect. Beliefs need to be questioned to understand them better. I have found sober and reasonable discussion helps me understand my views and, if they prove to be unfounded, I try to welcome the enlightenment. Other times I may realise I was right after all, so am grateful for the endorsement.

The University of Arizona published a paper on Environmental Ethics, which discussed the reasons to argue and the parameters for reasoned argument, or 'Creative Arguments,' as they termed it.

In this paper and in Dale Carnegie's book are rules for good debate. Conversely, if these features are absent from a discussion, they provide good indications it is time to walk away.

  1. Respect the views of the other party. Are you really that perfect that you know everything? Welcome the discussion as it gives you the opportunity to learn.
  2. Pay them the courtesy of listening to them. To do otherwise builds a barrier between you and you may miss an interesting snippet of information. Equally, the other person will be more likely to listen to you.
  3. Avoid instinctive reactions and always keep your temper at bay. The best debaters in history always kept their cool and had a store of witty returns to enliven the debate.
  4. Be honest if you find you have made an error. Otherwise you will start to create a difficult net of lies. That would be a definite time to exit!
  5. Avoid circular arguments such as 'the Bible says it's true, so it must be so.' You, and they, need to come up with better reasons.
  6. Avoid name-calling and manipulation. Once you or the other party start using exclamations such as 'Nonsense' or 'You are so stupid,' it is time to pack your bags.
  7. Silly generalisations and attempts to prove popularity are pointless too. Such phrases as 'everyone smoke marijuana' or 'everyone knows Obama is a Zionist infiltrator' are hardly reasoned arguments.
  8. Point out areas of agreement and thank the other person for a stimulating discussion. Perhaps tell them they have given you a lot to think about.


The key to ensuring a discussion has a positive outcome is to remember that we all want to feel important and treating someone with respect ensures both parties feel that. A heated argument will ensure both parties lose and feel bad. This is why I avoid such situations, perhaps by walking away, just staying silent or steering away from the subject. The other person usually gets the message.

In 'How To Win Friends And Influence People,' Dale Carnegie tells the story of opera tenor Jan Peerce who was explaining how he had been married nearly fifty years. "My wife and I made a pact a long time ago, and we have kept it no matter how angry we have grown with each other. When one yells, the other should listen – because when two people yell, there is no communication, just noise and bad vibrations."

Of course, you may think this article is a load of rubbish. If you do, then of course you are more than entitled to your opinion.

wrong order again by suvodeb at flickr