Arguing: It’s Not A Bad Thing, Right?

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It occurred to me when my 16-year-old son brought home his AP English book, “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion” by Jay Heinrichs, that I was in trouble. Big trouble. My curiosity on the art of arguing, and my survival as a parent of a teenager, resulted in research on the art of arguing. The research included reading articles, reviewing the great philosophers’ perspectives, asking my friends (which was such an interesting experiment), and practicing on my family (mostly my husband).

Research indicated that most people fail at arguing. This failure results in lost possibilities, unheard voices, and slower change (Barker, 2014). Grab a piece of paper, pause in reading this article, and write down the last three times you were in an argument you lost – and why. If you are one of those people who can’t think of an example, ask yourself, “When did I get mad about something and just sulk and maybe nod my head in agreement, but knew there was no way I was going to do what I just agreed to do.” That example in itself is a silent argument. After you have made your list, research would indicate that most of the failed attempts at arguing are because of one or more of the following reasons:

People want to win and only win. Once your brain enters the “war zone”, you actually stop arguing and start fighting (which we will learn more about later).

People don’t say what they really mean because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

People just don’t like the other person, and it is “personal”.

People are insecure and feel personally attacked so go into fight mode or flight mode.

People just don’t have the skills, so their own brain and tongue cause them a remarkable amount of trouble (Barker, 2014).

People want to fit in with the group, and they feel going against the group results in social alienation.

People are social loafers, meaning they deflect their responsibility to solve the problem to their fellow employees or peers.

Or if none of those work, maybe you subscribe to Homer Simpson’s philosophy of arguing:

Marge: “Homer, it’s very easy to criticize.”

Homer: “Fun, too. “

In business, the art of arguing is important because without the ability to argue, creativity, innovation, and missed opportunities result. With all the change occurring “again” in the software industry, arguing is important because it moves problems forward and may mean the difference between a relevant and irrelevant business model. Yes, you read that right. If you learn how to argue correctly, it is a great problem-solving tool. Arguing is also important because without it, unhealthy cultures surface and stall strategic execution: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” (Peter Drucker, 2009). Lastly, the art of arguing is important for us personally because it helps maintain long-term relationships that are rich and rewarding. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs indicates that our second most human motivator is the sense of belonging. If you let arguing, which is a natural result of humanness, affect your relationships, you are denying yourself one of the greatest motivators on the path to self-actualization.

So, how’s that for persuasion in why you should learn to argue? If it has peaked your interest, all change begins with desire, and all change is stalled or ignored without it. If you have the desire to whet your appetite with tools for arguing, read on.

Tool #1: Pick your battles and know the difference between arguing and fighting.

A fine coach of mine, Ms. Robertson, once told my “scrappy” self that I didn’t always have to engage in the fight, the cause, the argument, the debate, you name it. It was absolutely liberating to choose what arguments to take on. Some of us take on everything. On the other hand, some take on nothing, and suppressed arguing becomes a “whack a mole” of unforeseen behaviors. What’s the difference between arguing and fighting? Heinrichs (2015) states that the difference between an argument and a battle is “in a fight each constituent tries to win the battle, and in an argument each constituent tries to win the opponent over.” Be clear with your intentions. If you want to be right, instead of doing what is right, you will probably be in a full-scale fight. If you want to win over the person to move forward, you are probably in the right frame of mind to argue. “To win a deliberate argument, don’t try to outscore your opponent. Try instead to get your way.” (Heinrichs, 2015).

Tool #2: Never fight a logical argument with emotion and an emotional argument with logic.

Imagine you come home at night to vent to your partner about what an awful day you have had with such an awful person. Your partner has two choices – fix it or listen. Logically, some want to fix it because they love you. Emotionally, some know to just listen and empathize. Sometimes winning an argument is empathy first, logic and results second. The real brilliant arguer knows the difference.

Tool #3: Pick the right type of argument to have.

There are three types of arguments. Past tense, which sounds like, “Why didn’t you get that report to me on time?” The search is for blame, and the argument focuses on what and who to blame. The second type is values-based and sounds like, “Can you believe she doesn’t come in to work at 9:00 a.m. every day?” The argument is about values around work ethic and work style. They are typically present-tense arguments. The future-tense argument is one that focuses on moving forward to create choice and problem resolution. It typically sounds like, “I know I made you mad when we couldn’t agree on the release date of a new product. What can we do in the future to create better processes for release date timing?” Most successful arguers focus on moving their idea forward into the future and creating choice. In an age of constant change, opportunity, and turmoil, it’s easy to feel incompetent in where and how you fit with the iCloud software, the 365 nature of software, the Microsoft model, etc.; however, instead of focusing on the past, how about ask yourself in heated debates, “How do we move forward at what is important to our business, our customer, and our team?” As much as I would like to take credit for the brilliance of the three tenses of arguments, it’s so old that I have to attribute it to Aristotle. Who knew rhetoric and philosophy could be a leading contender in solving arguments?

Tool #4: Make friends with your friends, your kind-of friends, and your enemies.

Typically, friends are made through your decorum. Decorum means that your character starts with the audience’s love for you (Cicero). If you want to be a successful arguer, start with a good base of likeability. People often will argue (or in this case, fight) with those they like least because they have proven themselves “unlikeable”. If you are wondering if you are one of those unlikeable people, you are probably not. If you are reading this thinking, “I am not at all unlikeable,” please rethink your position and ask yourself what you can do each day (as small as it might seem) that helps someone like you. Or ask yourself the question, “Would you want to work with you?” I know it works. (I’m not speaking from experience or anything.)

Tool #5: Read, read, read, read.

Arguing is an art form, and great art takes a lot of practice and technique. If you are new to this field of arguing, read and practice and read and practice. I would recommend you start with one of the greats: “Thank You for Arguing” by Heinrichs. It’s pretty meaty and hearty, so if you are a true novice, search on the internet for Barker’s information on arguing. He’s pretty good, too. If that doesn’t work for you, watch the TEDx video “The power of vulnerability” by Brené Brown. Most people’s ability to argue is because they are willing to be vulnerable and persuade others with their authenticity.

Moving your business, your team, and/or yourself forward may just rely on your ability to “go to the mat” with a different intention than pinning your opponent.  

A few things about Pam McGee: She really doesn’t like to have her bio read or in print. She would much prefer introducing someone else than being introduced herself. Her best loves are her family, the tennis court, and learning. If life would allow, she would much rather be the student than the teacher. She has an innate ability to sort through a lot of information and find patterns, models, and simple solutions. She loves asking questions and is never at a loss for what to talk about with you. Her best love is starting something new or helping you start something new. Whether it be a business, a program, or a new way of thinking. Pam can be reached at

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