5 simple tips for better arguments

Shouting down your opponent does not constitute a victory.

by Adam Ferner
Last Updated: 27 Apr 2018

Arguing can be a drag. It can be messy and aggressive and unproductive. But it is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, resolving conflicts is a defining feature of a healthy relationship - business or otherwise. 

If your disagreements always devolve into slagging matches, don't despair. Philospher Adam Ferner has provided MT with some simple tips that will help turn your arguments into generous and generative discussions.


When it comes to arguing, context is everything. Where are you? Are you in a debating team? If so, you’re going to be arguing competitively – you’ll want to win. You’re going to want to beat the other team, irrespective of whether or not you think they’re right.

If you’re in a business meeting, however, the rules of engagement are going to be very different. You’re not aiming to win – you’re aiming to improve the business. And if you’re arguing with your life partner the aim is going to be different still – you’re arguing to better your relationship and (ultimately) to offer each other emotional support. Every time you argue, it’s important to bear this in mind: what’s the context – and what do you want to get out of the argument?


We tend to think about argument as a kind of blood sport. We talk about ‘fatal flaws’ in people’s positions and ‘shooting down’ opponents. We talk about the ‘cut and thrust’ of the debate – we think about argument as a duel, in which one person wins… and the other person gets stabbed. Needless to say, this isn’t particularly conducive to productive discussion. Trying dial down the aggression and think of arguments more as collaborative conversations.


We all have ‘epistemic’ blind spots – gaps in our knowledge – which can lead us to argue in unhelpful and counter-productive ways. Consequently, it’s important to think about the limits of our understanding: when arguing, try to think about what you don’t know as well as what you do.

Imagine, for instance, that you’re in a meeting about equality and diversity. If you’re a white middle-class man, it’s important to acknowledge that you’re almost certainly ignorant of a lot of the issues that women of colour, for example, are going to have experienced. It’s important to recognise that not everyone has the same epistemic authority on all issues. Ask yourself: Do I know what I’m talking about?


A lot of the time, arguments get messy because people simply aren’t listening to each other. This is a throwback to the competitive form of argumentation – one of the best ways to ‘win’ an argument is just to talk over your opponent. Unfortunately, this isn’t really an argument, is it? It’s a monologue.

An argument requires at least two interlocutors (real or imagined) – and it has at least two sides – and both of them have to be heard. When you’re arguing, avoid monologuing. Acknowledge your interlocutor. Look at them in the eyes. Listen to them. Maybe repeat back what they’ve said to make sure you’ve understood it correctly. Stop, look and listen.


On the traditional model of argumentation, someone ‘wins’ when they leave the discussion with their original position, claim or thesis intact. However, contemporary epistemologists have pointed out that this kind of ‘winning’ doesn’t actually constitute an ‘epistemic gain’. If you leave an argument without changing your mind, this means you haven’t learned anything new. The whole ordeal has been pointless for you.

In order to get the most out of an argument, remember that as a finite, mortal, non-omniscient being you’re going to be wrong about a whole bunch of stuff – and your interlocutor can help you learn new stuff. Working together, correcting each other’s misunderstandings, will bring epistemic gains to both parties – it’s win-win all round.

Adam Ferner is an associate fellow at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne and an officer of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. His book Think Differently: Open Your Mind. Philosophy for Modern Life is part of the BUILD+BECOME series. Published by Aurum, priced at £12.99 hardback.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr


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