Why argue?

May 29, 2008 at 6:36 pm 3 comments




Ralph Dobrin is the author of “How to Avoid Armageddon”
To order the book click:  www.amazon.com  type: how to avoid Armageddon

Arguing, all too often, accomplishes nothing apart from anger, frustration, bitterness and unbridgeable disagreement. Many relationships have been permanently ruined because of arguments. Businesses have crashed when partners disagreed stubbornly and national calamities have resulted from entrenched polemic in high places.

But there is a new way of arguing in which there are no losers. Contrary to the usual aim which is to win the argument, or at least never to concede defeat, the aim of this new way is to try and establish the truth about something, or understand it better, or to figure out the best possible way to do something, or to diffuse an unpleasant situation.

At the outset we should ask ourselves if the argument is worth the time, effort and hypertension. Is the subject trivial? Is the person we’re arguing with a rigidly stubborn, obtuse person with whom it is futile to conduct any exchange? Is there any point to this argument or should we just drop it?

If we do decide to continue the argument we should remember the following basic rules which hold true for almost every discussion – rules that every decent person knows but often ignores: never shout, or get personal (even if the other side shouts or gets personal). Many arguments get started because someone raised their voice. Avoid using terms like “You always think only of yourself” or “You think you know everything.” Perhaps the statements are valid, but invariably they won’t help solve anything. They will only stiffen the resistance and prevent resolution of your differences.


Here are some additional points in this new way of arguing. Listen to what the other person has to say. Interrupt only if something has been said that you don’t understand. Let the person complete making his or her point of view even if it is ridiculous or outrageous. Get a good idea of their side of the argument. Ask questions if something is not clear. During the whole course of the argument refrain from being aggressive, competitive, challenging, patronizing, belittling, overbearing or interrogative. On the other hand, don’t let them keep repeating themselves. If they do, tell them politely that repeating themselves is not necessary because you understand what they are saying. Also try to get them to stick to the point. Don’t let them digress. The issue must remain as clear and simple as possible.

Then, when you get to tell your side to the argument, if you are interrupted, remind them that you didn’t interrupt them. (That’s one reason you let the other person talk without interruption. You also let them speak freely beforehand in order to use what they say to strengthen your point of view.) Try to subdue the impulse to win the argument at all costs. The purpose of the argument should be to find a solution to an issue about which there is a disagreement. Present your point of view calmly and clearly. But do it without being long-winded. Don’t ramble or embellish it with all kinds of personal experiences or parables.

Try to get the other person to be affirmative to your questions. For instance you can start by saying something like: “We both want the same thing and that is to solve the problem, isn’t that so?” The aim of this type of leading question is to be answered “Yes!” That already gives us something in common and from the outset it might just put the other person in a positive “yes” frame of mind.

Observe the other person’s expression and body language. Are they listening? Do they understand your point of view? From time to time ask: “Did you get that?” Often people pretend to be listening to you or to understand what you’re saying. Occasionally ask a question to verify whether you have a real audience. If the person wasn’t listening you were just wasting your time and “talking to the wall.”

If you’re talking to a sensible, decent person, there is every chance that you will be able to resolve your differences – assuming that your point of view represents logic and the arguments are valid. Most people, however, don’t like to concede arguments and you’ll usually find that the other person will try and counter your argument – and that’s fine. When he does this he is giving you an opportunity to further clarify something.


Also, he might be absolutely right. Suddenly you might realize that you had been wrong. Don’t see the argument as a chess game which you are trying to win, but an opportunity to learn something or improve something and the other person has enabled this to happen. So, if you suddenly realize that you had been wrong, then admit it. “Yes, I think you may be right.” But just to make sure, it’s worth going over his argument again. Then, if it is acceptable, nod and acknowledge that you have just learned something from him. Even shake his hand and thank him.

Solutions to questions and problems are found by trying to see the whole picture from both sides. Let’s take an example: A husband and wife have a serious problem. The wife wants her mother to move in with them and her husband objects strongly. The mother is old, grouchy, fussy and will have many demands on their time. Also she has often made it clear that she dislikes the husband. But now her health has deteriorated seriously and she can’t stay alone anymore. Also there isn’t enough money to put her in an old age home. If the wife tries to force the issue it might lead to a flaming row with a lot of mutual bitterness, and possibly no agreed-upon solution. But if at the outset she says that she can understand why her husband doesn’t like the idea, she is setting a suitable mood for a serious discussion. “I’m not crazy about the idea myself,” she says. “But what alternative do we have?”

Her husband might suggest an alternative solution. If it makes sense, she should continue discussing it with him in order to find the best solution. If the suggestions that the husband makes are unacceptable to her, she should explain quietly why. In the course of the discussion they can explore other solutions. They can discuss making adjustments in the family budget or, if there is no alternative and the mother does come to stay with them, they can establish groundrules for all of them – so as to create as quiet and harmonious an ambience as possible. The point is to prevent any initial disagreement from becoming a bitter argument and to transform it into a serious quest for the best practical answers to a sticky situation.


Sometimes an incident can develop into a violent argument with very unfortunate results. On a hot summer’s day a friend of mine, Morris was riding his bicycle along a busy road. He was worried about his daughter who was hospitalized with a serious illness. A taxi came whizzing past, honked loudly and almost edged him off the road. “You bloody stupid maniac,” he yelled. The taxi continued driving for about two hundred meters and then stopped abruptly. The driver got out of the taxi and waited pugnaciously for Morris to reach him. Morris was ready to pounce on him and knock his teeth down his throat. The taxi driver probably had similar sentiments. Morris reached the taxi and got off his bike, confronting the driver. Morris is in his sixties, but he’s in pretty good physical shape. As a young guy he had done boxing, judo and karate. He sized up the driver, a middle-aged guy with a big, soft-looking paunch. “He was a bit taller than me, but I reckoned I could easily take him,” Morris related afterwards.

The driver challenged him: “What did you call me?”

Morris suddenly realized that they were heading for an unnecessarily dangerous situation – possible hospitalization for one of them, involving police, maybe jail.

He calmed down and replied. “It’s a helluva hot day, and you nearly knocked me off the road.”

“You’re a liar!” the driver shouted.

Morris countered unexpectedly: “I shouldn’t have called you what I did. It’s not right to swear at another man on the road. But really, you came very close to me and almost edged me right off the road.”

“You’re lying!” said the driver.

Morris: “Maybe you didn’t notice. You nearly knocked me off the road. Honestly! But like I said, calling you names was not right. I shouldn’t have done that. It’s just such a hot day and everyone’s nerves are frazzled.”

The driver looked at Morris with a puzzled expression for a moment. Then he said, “Yeah, it’s a hot day.” Then he leaned forward and shook Morris’ hand. “So long,” he said as he got into his car. “Have a nice day.” “You too and drive carefully,” Morris responded. The driver tipped his head and with a slight smile he drove off.

What a lesson! Firstly, never to express what you feel when you are very angry. Wait a moment before opening your mouth. Secondly, even if the other guy is abusive and calls you a liar, you might be able to diffuse the situation by calmly stating your version of the events, including your own mistakes or mishaps. “I shouldn’t have called you what I did,” followed by an explanation why he yelled the way he did. This way, they didn’t waste time arguing and screaming about who was in the wrong. And most importantly, they avoided what could have developed into a very unpleasant situation.


There are a few more cardinal rules in this new way of arguing. Avoid saying anything that you’re not sure of. Never lie. In this new way of arguing we are trying to come to an agreement about something through a partnership of honest, logical deduction. By being untruthful we would be distancing ourselves from the ultimate goal of the argument which is to find the best possible answer.

Generally, arguments are won by the side that is shrewder, more adept with words, or the one who puts on a angrier face, raises his or her voice louder, uses personal threats, or who simply lies. In such cases the outcome is seldom based on what is the best overall decision. Frequently, if the argument is about how to improve a situation or procedure, the outcome ends in the worst possible results.

Some professions are geared for arguing. Insurance executives find themselves frequently arguing with policy-bearers who have found their claims inappropriately honored. Lawyers are paid a lot of money to argue with other lawyers about rights and wrongs of their clients claims and counter-claims. Politicians spend a great part of their time arguing about government procedures, budgets, personalities and party platforms. Most argument conducted in these professions is all about winning. There has to be a loser. This new way of dealing with controversy that we propose might not be relevant in many situations. The lawyer, adopting this method would likely lose his livelihood. The politician in today’s world of cut-throat politics would have to be monumentally brilliant in order to get anywhere. But possibly in the future when the paramount value in life becomes truthfulness, then all professions will also abide by the groundrules suggested here.

However, humanity faces many critical challenges which demand clear thinking and the most efficacious reasoning possible. The old way of arguing will eventually have to give way to a far more honest, objective approach – an approach based on: “There is an important issue about which we disagree. We must find the best solution … together.”

It is hard to imagine Osama Ben-Laden and George W. Bush debating a solution to their disagreements, using this approach. After all, Ben-Laden represents the ultimate evil, and there is no point arguing with evil. But by using this new way of dealing with disagreement, there is every chance that  George W. and the most anti-war members of congress would have found the best possible solutions to the problems of global terror. 

With all the seemingly insurmountable problems now facing humanity, leaders and people everywhere will have to learn this new approach to controversy in order to see us through the Twenty-First Century.

Ralph Dobrin is the author of “How to Avoid Armageddon”
To order the book click:  www.amazon.com  type: how to avoid Armageddon

See also www.israelandtruth.org






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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shira  |  May 30, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    We argue to be right. We make ourselves right by making the other person wrong. Is it really so important to be right? We learned when we were very small that beng right was necessary to our survival. It is time to rethink this as adults.

    There are 2 games in town: the Right-Wrong game and the Happiness game.
    The price of the one is the other.

  • 2. hana Omer  |  June 6, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    Dear Ralph,
    What would you do with this one?
    I just had an emotionaly loaded argument with an ortodox Jew, who said that hundreds of thousands of czechoslovakian and hungarian Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis because of the zionist Jews who didn’t want to pay the ransom for them. He used this information for attack on Zionist Judaism.
    Maybe he is right, but I answered him (in short here) that because of such hatred between Jews as he’s right now creating fell the Temple.
    What do you think of this?

  • 3. truthandsurvival  |  June 7, 2008 at 5:08 am

    It’s often hard to keep from being emotional — especially on a subject that must be close to your heart. You said “maybe he’s right”. But maybe he’s absolutely wrong. Much of the time we argue about things that we don’t really know.

    Your last sentence seems quite applicable: “because of such hatred between Jews as he’s right now creating fell the Temple.”
    I used to get pretty worked up with arguments like this one. Nowadays, either I would just pull out of the argument at the outset — after all what’s it going to accomplish — or if I had nothing else to do but to continue the exchange with this fellow, I would try to enjoy myself in an intellectual exercise that included honesty. “What do we really know about the subject? Personally I know next to nothing — just what I’ve read in a few sources. What are your sources? Oh rabbi so and so! How does he know? etc. Eventually trying to get the other fellow to admit that he personally doesn’t really know the details from any reliable first-hand source. Then we can both laugh — after all we’ve been arguing about something that we don’t know. Ha ha.

    I know it’s not easy to adopt this stance. But it prevents getting high blood pressure and it can even be fun.


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