Arguing 101

Arguments and criticism go together like peanut butter and jelly. Because webcomic reviewers violate a social taboo by being critical, readers feel justified in violating the same taboo by being critical toward the critics. It's likely a combination of an "eye for an eye" mentality and a sense of "free-speech zones" existing within the internet. It doesn't make sense, but that's OK. Getting any kind of response is better than having a comments section look like a ghost town.

Arguing has gotten a bad reputation, possibly in part because of how nasty politics has gotten. News headlines borrow language from football writers, using aggressive words such as "destroy," "crush" and "obliterate" to describe debates. "School" is a more passive verb that's used to convey dominance and superiority. These headlines are very successful in getting readers' attention, but an unfortunate effect is that they make arguing seem like a form of intellectual violence.

Most people never learn how to argue. Arguing is often seen as aggressive and even hostile behavior that should be avoided when possible.  And many people who don't know how to argue view arguing as an aimless, frustrating and vulnerable endeavor, like being lost in the wilderness.

If you're not already a skilled debater, the tips and strategies in this post will help you argue effectively.

1) Get to know the other person.

If you're unfamiliar with the person you're arguing with, start out with questions and brief statements so you can gauge whether or not you want to invest your time and energy into having an argument.

Arguments should provide some sort of value. If you don't think there's any value, politely end the conversation and do something more productive with your time. Some people might complain about it, but remember that your time is precious. You could be practicing a skill, researching a topic or having a high-quality discussion elsewhere instead.

2) Don't guess.

One of the biggest and most common mistakes in arguments is making wild assumptions about people. This can include trying to guess a person's hidden motivations. Even if you think you have a good intuition about these kinds of things, it's better to stay objective and make statements that you're able to defend.

Also, remember that you can always just ask the person what they believe or why they said something. It's a lot simpler and more effective than attempting to psychoanalyze them.

3) Control your emotions.

It's normal to get angry when someone attacks your views. You may even feel a rush of adrenaline as your body goes into "fight mode." However, to argue effectively, you have to be calm.

If you're feeling upset, put off the argument until later. Give yourself time to calm down. Most likely, you'll even begin to understand where the other person's coming from and see that they have legitimate reasons for their beliefs.

Also, if someone says something that upsets you, think about why it upsets you. Is there something you're insecure about? Are you sensitive or easily offended? It's important to recognize these problems and take steps to work on them.

4) Stick to logic.

The best arguments are based on detached, rational analysis. The worst arguments are based  on feelings. The more emotional a person is, the less valuable their arguments will be.

A lot of arguments start out in the realm of logic but drift toward emotions when someone reveals an insecurity or fails to defend an argument. For example, if someone who prides themselves on their intelligence gets called out for saying something stupid, they may experience self-doubt and get emotional. In that case, they should defer to the superior, more rational debater.

Of course, people rarely do that. Instead, they get even more emotional and lash out. At this point, the argument should be respectfully ended.

5) Avoid personal attacks.

Aka ad hominems, personal attacks ruin arguments. Their purpose is to fish for an emotional reaction, and it's a lazy (and sometimes desperate) way to argue. When someone resorts to ad hominems, tell them that you don't respond to personal attacks, and end the argument.

It may be tempting to return fire and bash the person with a clever attack, but it's more effective to just ignore them. They might try to get a response from you by being angry or whiny, but then they're just embarrassing themselves even further. Always remember to stay disciplined and not give in to using cheap tactics.

6) Use evidence.

It's easy to make bold claims that don't have any substance, but it's definitely worth the extra time it takes to do research and use facts. This effort adds objectivity to an argument and establishes a common ground to work with. It's possible to get carried away with data and rely too much on them, but they're generally more coherent and relevant than intuitive or subjective arguments.

Also, sometimes people stubbornly cling to "facts" that have flimsy or even nonexistent sources. When their lack of evidence is called out, they usually go to ad hominems to try to change the subject. It's best to just ignore these people and let them keep living in their fantasy worlds.

7) Let your argument stand alone.

Having credibility always helps, but a bad argument is bad no matter who it's from. It's a cheap gimmick to rely on bringing up your academic and/or professional background to make your argument seem persuasive. Someone who's highly intelligent and knowledgeable shouldn't have a hard time coming up with a real argument.

The other side of this issue is that it's very easy to make things up, especially online. If you wanted to, you could invent a prestigious title for yourself, or even claim to be a celebrity. And if you can prove your identity, an internet argument probably isn't worth sacrificing your anonymity over.

8) Write properly.

It's very hard to take someone seriously if their writing is full of errors. Obviously it's different if a person isn't a native English speaker, but in most cases having poor English is a sign of carelessness and low intelligence. Take a moment to proofread what you write.

Another important aspect of writing properly is taking the time to explain your reasoning. It's the same technique we were taught in grade school: introduce a thesis, then elaborate on it. A lot of the time, I think, people know they're supposed to do this but are too intellectually lazy to go through with it.

9) Learn constantly.

The best arguers are people who know a lot because they're always reading and learning. There's an obvious difference between someone who knows what they're talking about and someone who just has a big ego. In addition, knowledgeable people are more confident when they argue because they know their claims are substantial.

There's a pattern in this post of ignoring and being dismissive towards bad arguers, and while some people might find this approach to be rude, it's really all about learning more. It's hard to justify spending time arguing with an obnoxious person when you could be reading an article or book instead, or developing your mind or body in some other way. Great debaters are relentless about getting new information and broadening their perspectives.

10) Be cooperative, not competitive.

I saved the most important tip for last. "Winning" an argument means collaborating with the other person to create value. When someone's goal is to dominate and humiliate the other person, no one learns anything or gains a better understanding from the interaction. There are only two outcomes to arguments: either everyone wins, or everyone loses.

Arguing effectively means overcoming your own ego rather than the other person. Ego is important for survival, but it hinders your ability to learn and grow as an individual. The sooner you're able to focus on your own faults and weaknesses rather than antagonize other people, the sooner you'll be able to unlock your potential.


By using the strategies in this post, you'll naturally becoming a better debater because you'll have to fully use your brain rather than rely on cheap gimmicks.

And once you accept that winning and losing depends entirely on the other person's attitude, it's easy to be fearless and completely calm when you argue. There's zero pressure on you to come up with a clever retort, try to catch the other person off guard or utilize any other tactics. Arguing also becomes simplified to an estimation of value, eliminating any distracting emotional or psychological context.

Finally, arguing is easy to practice ... with the right people. It may take a bit of work to find these people, but when you do, it will be highly beneficial for your personal development.

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