Learn to Argue Productively Arguments don’t have to be heated, explosive moments. As long as everyone’s in good faith, everyone can learn from one another.

Sound advice, if hard to put into practice. I found the distinction regarding the type of argument–about facts, values or practicality–particularly useful:

Arguments and disagreements aren’t always bad. They can solve problems, show you sides of things you haven’t considered before, and even be fun. But unproductive arguments, or worse circular arguments that you keep having over and over again, are a time and emotional drain — which nobody needs right now.

Like most things, there’s a skill to having good arguments. You can get better at having them with practice — and not in the high school debate-winning way. Productive disagreements aren’t all out shouting matches with a victor and a loser; they’re deliberate attempts to explore differences and reach a common ground, whether that be about who should be President of the United States — or if pizza for dinner is acceptable three nights in a row.

“In order for someone to have better disagreement with you, there has to be this sense that you’re working with the same material,” Buster Benson, author of Why Are We Yelling: The Art of Productive Disagreement, said. If one of you thinks the argument is about facts and the other about moral philosophy, you’re never going to reach an agreement.

In his book, Mr. Benson identified three “realms” of arguments: the realm of the head, the realm of the heart, and the realm of the hands. Arguments in the realm of the head are about what is true. “There has to be factual evidence you can go and look up somewhere,” he said. It’s things like the size of Los Angeles or the equation to determine the volume of a sphere.

Arguments in the realm of the heart are about what is meaningful — they’re about matters of personal taste and moral value judgments. For example, disagreements over whether Tom Cruise is a great actor or if babies should be allowed to wield firearms without parental supervision.

Arguments in the realm of the hands are about what is useful and practical. Whether it’s better to exercise before or after work, for example. Or if bailing out the airlines will help the economy. They can only really be settled with some kind of test or waiting to see how things go.

When you’re having a disagreement with someone, Mr. Benson suggested asking yourself (and the person you’re arguing with), “Is this about what’s true, what’s meaningful, or what’s useful?” Many unproductive disagreements happen because one person thinks it’s an argument about facts (Mr. Cruise has never won an Academy Award) while the other thinks it’s about one’s opinion (“Top Gun,” “Jerry Maguire,” and “A Few Good Men” are all exceptional films carried entirely by Mr. Cruise).

By stepping back and asking whether the disagreement is about the facts at hand, a matter of opinion, or how something should be done, you can make sure everyone involved in the argument is participating in the same realm. It doesn’t matter that Mr. Cruise hasn’t won an Academy Award as that’s a very poor proxy for brilliance — what matters is how he makes me feel.

Anxiety is a tool that can help you understand what you value and why people argue with you, Mr. Benson said. The emotions you feel when someone disagrees or challenges you on something reveal where your personal expectations don’t line up with reality. He suggested paying close attention to what sparks it.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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