Nine ways to debate contentious issues with integrity

Even people in the best relationships have times when they disagree. The key to maintaining the relationship isn’t so much preventing fights, but learning how to fight well. In a “good” fight, the tension experienced is a catalyst for growth and positive change by both parties. The same is true for political disagreement. Unfortunately, in both political and personal fights, it’s all too easy to let your anger get the better of you, jeopardizing your cause.

A particular pitfall of those who are passionate advocates for change in their community is to forget that “the city” or “the government” is first made up of people. The same guidelines that can help partners and colleagues fight “well” also apply.

Psychology Today recently published a list called Nine Ways to Lose An Argument (Even If You’re Right), and it’s a great summary of what not to do if you want to rally people to your cause:

  1. Hit “below the belt.” Make sure you attack areas of personal sensitivity, like the person’s physical appearance, personality, character, or trustworthiness.
  2. Generalize. Use words like “never” or “always.” Not only will it guarantee that your partner-in-argument will become defensive, it will give him or her loophole. After all, it’s rare that a person never or always does something.
  3. Stockpile. Why settle for a battle when you can start a war? The next time you’re in an argument, bring up every grievance and hurt feeling in the history of your relationship.
  4. Clam up. Who doesn’t love the silent treatment? Start it when the other person is most vulnerable, so wait until the other person is genuinely expressing his or her distress.
  5. Yell. You know if you say it loud enough, you’re guaranteed to get the other person to see the light. Plus, it gets him or her to shut up.
  6. Assume the worst. Yeah, your manager said she gave you a “3” out of 5 on your performance evaluation because you’ve been slacking off lately, but you know it’s because she’s jealous of your superior intelligence and wants to knock you down a peg or two. Always assume the other person has an ulterior motive, especially when s/he tells you something you don’t like.
  7. Insist that “most people” would also see things your way. In one-on-one disagreement, it’s always useful to find ways to gang up on the other person. One way is to insist that any reasonable/sane/smart (you fill in the blank) person would agree with you.
  8. Find common ground and use it to show how superior you are. “I’m stressed too, but I still make sure I exercise.” “I also have a nanny and understand she can get sick. That’s why I made sure I have a backup daycare.” Yes, these may be good solutions for this person going forward, but they’re not going to be helpful in the heat of an argument.
  9. Go the distance. Remember; there’s no such thing as “pick your battles.” Be prepared to argue every point in every disagreement until you’ve beaten the other person down. And never compromise.

I prefer not to frame things in the negative, so here’s the flip side of that list: nine ways to debate with integrity:

  1. Criticize actions, not people.
  2. Be specific.
  3. Stay on-topic.
  4. Keep communicating respectfully (don’t lose your cool).
  5. Listen as well as talk.
  6. Assume good intentions, even when you disagree with certain actions.
  7. Agree to disagree on some things.
  8. Empathize.
  9. Compromise.

Those who fight for change have a rough path. It’s frustrating, time-consuming and often thankless work – even more so when the solutions you’re looking for involve more than one decision-maker. Amplify that frustration if it also involves decision-makers who are elected and have a number of interest groups and other constituents competing for attention.

Even so, it’s a mistake to frame these disagreements as “battles.” It paints all those who disagrees as enemies and too easily escalates mild criticism into “attacks.” In reality, most people are doing the best they know how. Constructive criticism supported by proactively suggesting solutions is more likely to realize change. If what you really want is resolution, begin with an attitude of collaboration.

I’m not so naive as to think that this list will defuse all conflicts, but I thought it worth sharing. I’m taking it to heart as a good reminder of some of the key “Dos” and “Don’ts” of respectful debate on this blog and in the world beyond.

7 Replies to “Nine ways to debate contentious issues with integrity”

  1. You are right on. I recently used the phrase “Wage war” as a descriptive illustration in a recent post. I wish I had used a less bellicose word now.

  2. Great post Briana – the negative framing from the article gave me an early morning smile. But none the less great points to keep in mind.

  3. Isn't "common sense" a wonderful thing? … and to put it in print, concrete and concise! Thank you!

    I absolutely love the duality! Very clever indeed!

    Please do send this to our local papers in the form of a letter to the editor!

    (*and also to all locally elected representatives!!)

  4. Big fan of the perspective, and a bigger fan of the fact that it's on this blog. And HUGE fan of the fact you applied this to dealing with governments! 🙂

  5. The best tactic I've learned is listing (or reading) intently, observing any statement that can be used to vex your opponent. You don't have to be right about anything. If your opponent is a public body you simply bleed the beast.

    Example – Speeding ticket – You may be guilty, who cares, not important.

    They offer a discount as an incentive for you to plead your guilt if you pay early. Don't. Write a hand written letter to the drop bag in Victoria for disputes, and have your day in court. First off, the process of reading and making a court appointment with a judge probably costs about the face value of your ticket. When you get your court date, which will likely be a year later, if the office shows, you can plead guilty, and ask for a reduction in the fine (due to hardship), the judge may reduce the fine. If the office doesn't show, plead not guilty, and walk away a freeman while costing the system.

    Either way, you win.

    And it's your right to access the justice system.


    1. I'm definitely seeing those tactics in action in your prolific commenting here! "The best tactic I’ve learned is listing (or reading) intently, observing any statement that can be used to vex your opponent. You don’t have to be right about anything." Suddenly it all makes sense 🙂

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