‘ Arguments are to be avoided: they are always vulgar and often convincing.’
Oscar Wilde, a man who honed the art of disagreeing politely into a dangerous conversational weapon, joked that a world without arguments or dissension would be grey indeed, and often the most colourful of arguments are those that do not descend into anger, remaining untainted by the red mist of rage. After all, the ‘aim’ of an argument should not be solely to win, but to progress the basic understanding of the issue at hand – and this is achieved more easily if everyone remains calm.
One rule of thumb is always to be more civil than the person you are arguing with; this will ensure that you retain your grip on the moral high ground. Shouting loudly to make your point is excusable in primary school but compromises your adult dignity. Argue about facts, not the personalities of the people with whom you’re arguing. Avoid ‘-isms’ at all costs; the use of labels leaves you wide open to accusations of generalisation and makes people instantly defensive. Work towards agreement, not point-scoring. Concede a point when you have no response to it.
If you are arguing a point based on bias or intuition alone, have the honesty to admit it – this arms you with a reputation for being reasonable, which confers more power than just ranting. One effective tool is to apologise on the spot if you’ve said something you might regret later.
If all this sounds far too staid and dull, don’t despair: an argument is never just a polite debate – it has a pinch more spice than that. The clenched teeth, the unbroken eye contact, the ebb and flow of ideas can be both electrifying and exciting. There is an intimacy in a good argument that has nothing to do with the issues being addressed, and that is precisely because a good argument is a team effort.
Underlying all the disagreement is an agreement that the other person’s opinion is valid, that you are at least going to listen to their side of the argument. For some people, the opposite of talking isn’t listening, the opposite of talking is waiting for the other person to stop talking or – even worse – shouting over them. Do not argue with these people, it’s just not worth the effort.
Finally, the Last Word. For some people, the Last Word is what an argument is all about; somehow he who speaks last, wins. Tempting as it may be to take this low road through an argument, try to resist. And that is our Last Word.