Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Don't Argue to Win—Argue to Engage

Jonathan Herring, How to Argue: Powerfully, Persuasively, Positively

I used to teach argumentation theory in my freshman comp classes, and I could see the curtains lowering behind my students’ eyes. I thought, all this about coalescent design, Toulmin models, and case construction is so interesting to me, surely my students must share my excitement! Only when I saw them putting my lectures into play did I realize that advanced theory mattered little to anyone not ready for the brass tacks of legitimate argument.

Jonathan Herring, prolific British law professor and ethicist, steps into that gap with a good, brief, spirited introduction to the process of testing ideas through argument. His guide does not provide clues on how to win a quarrel or best somebody in a brannigan. Rather, he demonstrates the best way to speak well, pitch your premise, bolster it in a persuasive manner, and defend it against routine attacks. I wish I’d had this book in my teaching days.

Herring’s guide has many advantages. First, it’s slim. Readers could slip this book in a briefcase, purse, or outside pocket of a backpack for easy consultation. This jibes with its straightforward organization, so readers can find what they need. Herring divides his book into two parts: ten “golden rules” of productive argumentation, and ten situation-specific approaches to customizing argument. Together, they form a good introduction to primarily verbal debate.

To begin, Herring asks readers to know whether they really want to have the argument at hand. Are you prepared, in command of the facts? Is this the right venue to have this argument? Will this argument do more harm than good for the relationship? Is this argument even worth having? Surely we all share, at least somewhat, the experience of winning the battle and losing the war when we encultured resentments, made ourselves look ignorant, or lost a job.

This isn’t blue-sky theorizing. Herring asks us to ensure that, for instance, we know what we’re talking about, and present it in a way audiences can comprehend. Especially in a political season like this one, some people argue with nothing but a strongly held feeling, and resent it when they get trounced. Meanwhile, brainy people like me come with so much information that hearers feel deluged. This isn’t argument; it’s using facts like a club to beat hearers into compliance.

For Herring, the point of argument is not to win—which is just as well, since outright victory is rare. Instead, we should strive to reach some shared goal that lets us move forward. Therefore, in addition to what we say, Herring takes time to coach us on what we don’t say. We should listen more than we speak, he says, because only in hearing the other person can we meet their needs. And we should value maintaining healthy relationships over short-term triumph.

Herring also recognizes that not all arguments are the same. I appreciate his discussion of how to argue when the participants have unequal power. We cannot approach an argument with our kids, who are essentially powerless, the same way we approach an argument with a spouse, who should be roughly equal, or a boss, who has extreme power over us. We must customize our approach depending on the distribution of power.

Often, Herring says, arguments have little to do with the surface trigger. We can often increase productivity, heal relationships, and resolve deadlock by moving past whatever we think caused the current dispute, and addressing what lies beneath. This may mean giving up on the current dispute, or leaving some minor controversy unresolved. But if we can answer the real argument, we make real contributions to our job, marriage, or whatever.

And Herring accomplishes these goals in plain English. Back when I taught argumentation, I used a lot of technical terms, like warrant, dialectic, and topos—words I now realize I didn’t really understand. Herring writes in plain English, taking the time to flesh out his ideas with examples that should ring familiar to most readers. Even as he explains tough concepts, his language reads with the ease of a novel.

If you often find yourself going in circles when trying to sort out differences, or make little headway getting others to take your needs seriously, you need this brief entrée to simple argument. Herring makes short work of a complex subject, in a way that doesn’t bog down in extraneous detail or terminology. Hopefully, if a few people in key places follow his advice, we’ll see an improved level of discourse in our time.

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