Loving Argument

A contentious problem was dropped in the lap of the new group manager. The issue not only wasn’t resolved but the team had been arguing angrily for weeks.

So the next meeting, she started by asking everyone to stop talking about themselves or each other but only about the possible solutions to the problem. The air cleared, the dialogue turned productive, the anger disappeared, and the problem was resolved. Through loving argument.

Had our presidential candidates applied the principles of loving argument in their debates, our country would not now be sinking into ever deeper anger and sorrow. It happens that my most frequent arguing partner is also one of the most beloved in my life: we argue about ideas we care deeply about; we raise our voices; we feel no need for consensus (each believes we’re right most of the time!)… and we love each other no less.

So here’s a quick overview of the principles and steps everyone can take to ensure that you get the benefits of loving argument every day at home, at work, over coffee, and on the phone.

The principles.

  • We attack ideas, facts, opinions, procedures, actions; we never attack each other.
  • We never start sentences with “I” unless talking about ourselves.
  • We shun the words, “I,” and “you,” “right,” and “wrong.”

So let’s see the steps to follow before blurting words that fail. Let’s say someone, “Noa,” is wrong about her prediction; she thinks I’m wrong.

Here’s what Noa feels like saying, “I know that you’re absolutely wrong – your prediction is so stupid it could never happen.”

Here are the steps to having a loving argument. 

1. Before speaking, think about the subject you mean to talk about.  Is it yourself? No. Is it the other guy’s stupidity? No. Is it the prediction? YES! So, instead of starting the sentence with “I” or “You,” try starting the sentence with its subject: “That prediction…”

  1. Now that you know what you’re talking about, follow the subject with its verb: if it matters enough to argue about, it must do something: misses the mark, promises, fails to ___, looks positive, will detract from, etc.
  2. What if you’re not sure enough to make a precise statement? Rather than lie and lose credibility, use the powerful English words that enable you to hedge without sounding pathetic: might, could, should, perhaps, consider, may. Whatever you do, don’t talk about how you feel or about how the other person feels: “I really really feel that’s a bad idea.”
  3. Actually listen to your partner in argument, take note of her exact words if necessary, agree if there’s anything you can agree to. Whatever you do, don’t spend the listening time by planning your next words.
  4. And, finally, attend to nonverbal cues: make eye contact, smile if you can agree to anything, avoid hostile gestures (tapping your foot, breaking eye contact, turning your back, checking your watch or phone), open your body; if possible and appropriate, touch your opponent lightly on the shoulder.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to learn the joys of loving argument.