How to Win Arguments without Coming off as Closedminded

Friday, as part of my new philosophical advice column, I started a four part series of replies to a young philosopher who reports being scrupulous about finding the truth and yet also getting called closedminded by his interlocutors. This weekend I analyzed how closedmindedness works in general, why people reflexively assert relativistic views when they’re philosophically challenged, and some possible explanations for why even openminded philosophers sometimes come off dogmatic. Now it’s time to get down to the advice for arguing without appearing closedminded.

Remember that even your least philosophical interlocutors have implicit logical associations working in their minds regardless of how inept they may be at consciously understanding, articulating, or defending them. Their subconscious brains have real reasons, rooted in real associations, at work leading them to say what they do. You will often learn more if you charitably help them explicate clearly their implicit reasoning process than if you just swat their surface errors down as worthless. If you help them think through the best versions of their ideas you will demonstrate an openness to hearing them and work things out with them. You will also get them thinking which is more important than you talking if you genuinely want them to learn. If they are the ones who have to do most of the work it is usually much more valuable to them than passive listening and processing is. This is a less efficient process than if you try to just cut to the chase with answers for them. The question is whether you want them to be exposed to more ideas or just process a few really well on their own terms.

And the less overtly contradicting you are during an argument, the more you can make them have to work out and the more they have to work out the more that problems will arise to them. When people’s own ramblings lead to contradictions, that’s what sets off alarms. Things that come from you  they can more easily prejudicially rationalize are the dismissible bloviations of a closed minded jerk. But internal problems coming from their own minds cause their minds to have to think. To help with this, it’s better to engage in constructive discussions too, rather than to frame things as disagreements. Let’s discuss the ins and outs of an issue together! When you do that, you can give input into a process where they’re much more open.

When outright contradicting them, philosophers and other critical thinkers and teachers often employ Socratic questioning rather than with forceful statements. So, in the least antagonistic and most honest way possible approach people by saying, “I understand and appreciate that what you care about is x, y, and z, and so that’s why you say p. But here’s my hang up about saying p: isn’t q, true? And if q, doesn’t that mean ~p? Help me out here, how do you reconcile that?”

And while you do this, manage their emotions. As Socrates did, compliment people. But don’t be insincere like he seems to be or that will blow right up on you. Instead sincerely look for people’s strengths and stress them. Reward them with explicit enthusiastic appreciation every time they make a good point. Go out of your way to stress points of general agreement, their virtuous intentions, to note problems people on your side have, and any features of their general outlook you find especially valuable and usually overlooked by people on your side. When they show you wrong, admit to it. When you don’t know a fact, admit to it. All of this is about being fair and genuinely open and collaborative with them in the search for truth. And, to be crassly psychological and tactical for a moment, it is about not making their brain feel threatened, turn defensive, and prejudicially perceive your every move as an enemy one.

The onus is on them to think now. It’s up to them to experience their own cognitive dissonance arise. And you’re clearly not imposing on them. You’re giving them the floor to explain themselves, not telling them they’re wrong. You’re asking them to talk, not to shut up. People who love to give their own opinions are in this way willing to let you put the burden of proof on them. All you need to do is be the critic, which is way easier and more efficient than having to be the constructive system builder. Tearing down is much quicker, easier, and can be done much more gently. You can level a devastating, flustering challenge extremely politely, innocently, and honestly. Trying to get someone to accept an intricate alternative picture of things that goes against what they already think is much more work. While through gentle Socratic questions, you may only leave them with more questions and cognitive dissonance and not a replacement system, that can be the very best first step to clearing the ground in the first place for them to listen to you.

Another thing to do amidst all of this, especially to ease their feelings of frustration and to demonstrate your genuine openmindedness, is to help them out. Offer them potential solutions when they get annoyed. Say, “maybe I see what you’re trying to say” and develop arguments for their views for them. They will often seize on this because deep down their subconscious brain is desperately trying to make sense of things and the new ideas are not fitting. It’s really uncomfortable. Most people will take a rope thrown to them gratefully. And then if you can show them why their views still don’t work even with the creative solutions that you offer and which temporarily get their hopes up, then you have really won points against them. Because now you’ve been openmindedly trying to help them, you’ve possibly shown a better mastery of their own ideas than they have, and you have nonetheless found the flaws in their thinking. This psychological dynamic is extremely persuasive.

Now, when they get frustrated they may try to turn the tables on you and say, well if you’re so smart, how would you solve these problems you’re giving me. And now you’ve got them. Because now if you come back with an answer that is confident, concise, cogent, clear, consistent, and coherent on an issue that they are feeling insecure about their ability to address, you can make them feel outmatched. They are now seeing the problem because it arose from their own struggle to articulate themselves when they had free opportunity to do so. And now when they’re feeling unsure of themselves you come off like someone who has it fairly well figured out. Psychologically that suggests maybe you’re righter than they are. And worst of all, since they asked you for your views, they can’t really claim you were the one who stormed in preaching at them with a closed mind. Usually they’ll see this and won’t even try that excuse. But if they do, you can swat it quickly, “You just asked for my views and I gave them. I don’t need to go on.”

And, this is key, you in fact don’t need to go on and on. You can (and I think you usually should) let people save face. If I can land one serious blow to their views and get an exciting concession to fall out of them, then quite often I go into self esteem control. The empathetic part of me activates. I feel grateful that they did this difficult thing of changing their minds in a way that was hard for them and I start protecting them against feeling embarrassed or frustrated. I help them experience this as a positive. I do not pile on the way others do. If they say they’re leaving, I thank them and give them their emotional space. If they follow up their concession with some attempts to explain that this was what they really meant from the start, I will often not fight them over it as long as they are now completely on board with the point.

I may try to stall them in their attempts to make their new conclusion seem like it seamlessly fits the identity and beliefs and values they were trying to preserve if it doesn’t. I may try to impress upon them that they have a serious cognitive dissonance issue they can’t brush under the rug but need to still work on. But any lesser things they say to save face I am okay with being very genial about. Most of us find it really tough to be wrong in most cases. My goal is to not make them resent me in those moments by making myself as a person comforting.

Now, there is a way this can all backfire. Sometimes people can read too many questions as the relentless hounding of a closedminded person who is willfully playing dumb or playing openminded. Socrates’s tactics are not exactly a well kept secret. People can catch on that the content of your questioning is more loaded, directed, and even combative than the apparent innocence and simplicity of your questions might try to appear. In short, they might see you as passive aggressive and become aggressive out of frustration. And if in fact you are giving pretense that you are actually not disagreeing at all but only asking questions for clarification, they’re right to get angry. I think it’s sincerity that is the decisive virtue here. You can hold back putting all your own cards on the table in early stages of a discussion if you think it will help the other person open up and not react defensively. But if you get any indicators of frustration or personal investment from the other person, it’s crucial to be candid and say, “I’m trying to understand things from your perspective, but these are the things that make me uncomfortable and unable to just say the things you say. I am willing to hear you out, but please be patient that I can’t affirm what you affirm for as long as it just sounds wrong to me in this or that way or for as long as this or that key point is unclear to me.”

What people who feel irritated by being put on the hot seat should train themselves to do is to simply turn the tables. At a certain point you can say, sure, my views are not completely perfect in all respects but I have demonstrated these various strengths they have and I think those are greater than your positions’ strengths. So, let me inquire about your views for a while. If someone lacks the temerity or the wherewithal or the experience to do that and they’re getting frustrated, you can suggest to them that they do the questioning. Or, if they just want to be left alone, just leave them at that point.

Your Thoughts?

I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University.

As a philosophical practitioner I help people reason through their beliefs, values, priorities, identities, emotions, ethical dilemmas, life decisions, existential quandaries, religious or post-religious struggles, love relationships, interpersonal conflicts, search for meaning and purpose, or struggles in any other areas of life that some conceptual clarification, logical consistency, theoretical sensitivity, and emotional intelligence can be helpful.

I do not treat mental illness. I simply help people reason more clearly, consistently, ethically, and proactively about their lives. Send your questions to camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject heading “Philosophical Advice”. The identities of all inquiring for advice are kept confidential and published e-mails will always use pseudonyms instead of real names.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Rosie

    Interestingly, I seem to have rather intuitively arrived at most of the method described here. Mostly because I really do want to understand exactly what the people I disagree with are thinking, and how they fit it together. I used to agree with them on most points (by default given how I was raised), and I genuinely want to know if they have better reasoning for those views than I ever did.

    But I find that most of them get extremely defensive and unhappy when I ask them to question their premises, their presuppositions, their foundational assumptions about how the world works. And usually that’s precisely where our disagreement lies. I’ve questioned and overturned those things in my mind, and am open to doing so again if necessary (though it wasn’t much fun). I have little patience with those who are not willing to do the same.

    • 3lemenope

      Your second paragraph there sums up my experience perfectly. One of the most painful things about appreciating philosophy is coming afterwards to know (through experience) that most people have negative interest in the same; kind of like if you’re a kid you share with peers a love of polka, or a fondness for playing D&D, or learning Klingon and the peers react more negatively than before they knew about your interest. They know what they know, and have no interest in visiting the foundation they built to see if all that knowledge is really built upon something stable.

      Even the science geeks hate the philosophy geeks.

      ———————————

      I tend to think that what stultifies a philosopher’s ability to communicate philosophy to non-philosophers is that they hang out with too many philosophers. Much like scientists often forget (if they ever knew) how to articulate their discoveries to non-scientists after being cloistered in a lab or shuttled about from conference to conference.

      In philosophy departments, we’re used to a person improving one or another of our arguments through constructive criticism and disputation, and this is generally a productive and pleasant use of time. Outside philosophy departments, though, disputation of that thorough sort is not generally associated either with pleasant feelings or with getting anywhere productive, except at the expense of the interlocutor (a win/lose zero sum dynamic).

      People, by-and-large, do not like their arguments to be “fixed”, especially by a person who disagrees with them. Ownership in one’s own opinions is a delicate thing, since a person comes to their conclusions if not by rigorous analysis than certainly by the accretion of life experience, and the weight of that accretion gives a person a (perhaps a bit deserving) feeling of entitlement to the product of those experiences. Sliding in to tweak the premises is in many ways a rejiggering of what that person is–how they desire to present themselves and their understanding of the world–even if it is on a playground generally a bit more mild than trying to redefine someone’s central metaphysical and social features. It’s one thing if a person truly desires help in rephrasing a point or concept, but unbidden it can get into dicey territory fast and lead directly to the philosopher being thought of as overbearing, closed-minded, etc. ad nauseam.

      Pivoting off of that, I think the feeling of hard won entitlement in one’s own opinions and viewpoints can make sincerity into an insufficient panacea for the danger of being taken as closed-minded or overbearing. That feeling of entitlement comes packaged with a question: Why should I have to defend what I believe to others? When philosophers offer an opinion to other philosophers, there is an implicit invitation to tear it to pieces (in an orderly way, of course). When people generally offer a view-point or opinion, there is no similar implication in most circumstances.

      There are certainly some strategies for avoiding some of these eventualities, but generally they’re only useful if you know your interlocutor pretty well. I’m not at all saying that disputation shouldn’t happen in general, or that bad ideas, once articulated, shouldn’t be challenged. I’m only saying that there is no real way to turn that into winning friends and influencing people; there is a reason the Allegory of the Cave ends the way it does, not to mention what ended up happening to poor Socrates. If one’s mission is to improve the arguments of those around them, it should be undertaken with the understanding that most people aren’t going to take it well. Time spent in a philosophy department can lead a person to forget this very easily.

  • Tony Debono

    This is excellent, Dan! Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how I talk with people of opposing view points; especially Christians. Even when I’m being as calm, polite, concise, and unpretentious as is possible for me (so as to not be threatening or seem dogmatic or forceful), I see the people I’m speaking with glaze over with dismissal, or worse, they spiral into what I call an ‘identity panic’ in which they get wide-eyed and start lashing out at me with indignation and contempt. It’s difficult to understand how what I’ve said or how I’ve presented myself could set them off like this, but clearly the problem under my control is my approach. I also think your recommendations will dovetail beautifully with Peter Boghossian’s guidelines which he lays out for his street epistemology.

  • Paul So

    I like this article, I think we should try to help people clarify their perspective to help them as well as show (indirectly) why their views have some serious weaknesses. However, I personally like to pick my “battles” (or discussion), because I don’t like to go near issues of “identity” that consist of fundamental values, it’s a hazardous task with lots of risk. I think as Debono points out, people can easily get into an “identity panic” when you make the slightest mistake that they are very sensitive to. I like to discuss about things that doesn’t directly touches on their identity, perhaps indirectly but not too close. I think I would agree with Rosie’s observation that people often feel unhappy and defensive (including myself sometimes) when their basic assumptions for their most held beliefs are being exposed as dubious. I would avoid doing that unless I’m arguing with someone about a subject they’re not too emotionally tied to.

  • Jake

    Thanks for this series Dan – I’ve been getting into more political arguments with family members lately and have been labeled close-minded, largely (I think) because of what you’ve outlined here. While a lot of what you’ve written seems like common sense now that I’ve read it, I realize that I was approaching my discussions all wrong.
    Is there a point where arguing with someone just isn’t worth it? I ask because I occasionally run into arguments where I KNOW the person involved is capable of intelligent, rigorous thought at a level similar to my own but they refuse to contribute intelligently. It’s like we’re trying to play a game but the other person refuses to follow the rules that are normally agreed on. If it helps to have some context, these arguments are usually political in nature. I will often respond with reasoned, research responses and will receive nothing but empty rhetoric. No matter what I try, I can’t seem to get that point across. As a teacher, I dislike giving up on “students” but this is starting to feel hopeless.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I don’t think we can reasonably deal with everyone who comes across our paths. There are plenty of people I just opt not to debate. If they’re people I come across often, my goal with them is to do fast targeted strikes on vulnerable areas when they come up. If they want to rant for 10 minutes about something agitating them, I just let them and then follow up with the most digestible, most back-to-reality doses of moderating common sense that they can concede. In that way my goal is just to be a non-threatening source of food for thought that keeps them from drifting into epistemic closure.

      I think when someone is engaging on that ideological level, my advice, if you want to argue with them, is to go to the level of fundamental values/beliefs because that’s where the problem is. If you are coming at the world from entrenched divergent fundamental starting points, facts are not going to be helpful. You need to go to the level of analyzing your very processers for assessing the facts. My view of arguments is that there are multiple levels our ideas exist on. To use the ground to structure metaphor, there are our foundational beliefs/values/commitments and then levels of increasing specificity built on them. With a fellow left wing activist atheist moral realist philosopher, I may be arguing on the 15th floor, we have so much in common. We dive right into the facts of a situation or a specific problem that people divides people like us but which assumes all the other stuff we both agree on. With a left wing activist atheist moral anti-realist philosopher, we may be debating on the 14th floor. If that person is not a philosopher, maybe it’s the 12th floor. Not left wing but still an atheist? Okay, maybe we’re on the 7th floor. Not even an atheist? But not some sort of liberal theist? Okay maybe the 4th floor. But they’re a philosopher at least? Maybe that’s 8th floor. Conservative evangelical Christian non-philosopher? Do they at least give lip service to secular democratic ideals? 2nd floor? No? 1st floor? Theocratic Muslim who I don’t even share minimal Western culture with? ground floor. Liberal secular, democratic Muslim? 3rd floor. Literally violent and militant religious fanatic of any religion? Now we’re probably all the way down in the basement struggling to get UP to common ground.

      Point is, I try to figure out the floor where we have common ground, find the place where we both see the world the same. What things do we agree on? Where’s the first place where you insist we go right and I insist we go left. If we back up to there and argue only appealing to what we share in common, I think we have the best chance of success. Trying to argue on the upper floors without sharing common ground up there, we are constantly going to be talking past one another because of the tons of unresolved issues on lower floors. It’s okay to do this sometimes so we can learn about each other’s views and maybe some changes can happen on the lower floors based on fights on the upper floors. But I think it’s more efficient to find the point of divergence and argue on that floor because it’s clarifying, provides a basis for working together, and changes on those fundamental levels I think are weirdly a bit easier for people to process. When you challenge the upper levels without hitting the fundamentals, people still feel secure in the fundamentals and are more inclined to dismiss your points on the upper levels. Hitting the fundamentals directly is more efficient. It’s easier to change views on the upper levels because of a change of views on the fundamental level than vice versa, in my experience.

    • Jake

      Thanks for the reply Dan. That’s a really great analogy and one I think I’m going to employ in the future.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, I’m thinking of writing a post of it.

    • John Kruger

      I agree, a very useful analogy.

      Of course, we have to be able to determine how foundational each idea actually is, which of course will be individualized. We may even find agreement on something that is on completely different levels in our compared personal “belief buildings”, a subtle discovery which might take quite a bit of effort to reveal.

      It would make for a really good post, I think.

  • John Kruger

    There is a lot of good advice here.

    I can really only call myself an amateur philosopher, I just read and listen to topics that interest me and do what I can to understand the arguments about them in my spare time. From time to time, I think I have a decent grasp and concept only to have the legs kicked out from it in a few questions. It gets really disheartening. People spend a lot of time building up worldviews and opinions on big questions, and being so vastly outclassed as to be summarily dismissed quickly in argument often leads to the temptation of writing off the whole exercise. It is kind of like winning your local chess tournaments all the time then losing consistently in a few moves over and over as soon as you go up to the larger competition level. The temptation is to degrade all of chess as a pointless game rather than admit there is a lot that needs to be learned.

    I also find that more professional philosophers like to throw out their best arguments early, in the hopes of improving them. A lot of people do not think of arguing as a collaborative effort, however, and will quickly resort to base emotional appeals or attacks to save face from “losing”, especially when the “defeat” appears so resounding and quick. In this type of case there is the double fear of not only being wrong, but also being considered stupid. “How could I have been taken in by a mistake that comes up all the time? How could I overlook a problem so glaring? How could I have invested so much of my life into an idea that is wrong? I’m not stupid, there must be something wrong with the criticism that I just can’t think of . . .”. Dan points out some really good methods to avoid this whole “upping the ante” on bad arguments, which one really has to do if minds are to be changed.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, this is why I am so adamant against calling people stupid or treating them like they are. It shuts them down hard. I am as encouraging as possible, particularly in person, to affirm people’s abilities and to make it less like a joust that they feel embarrassed to risk losing.

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

    This is all excellent (except, I think, the emphasis on “winning”). I’ve read this a couple of times and plan to read a couple more and try to use it to analyze communications that go awry. Thanks.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, Shira. I put the emphasis on winning because I wanted to deal with the challenge of not coming off closed-minded when you really are putting a horse in the race. It is easier to come off not closed-minded if you opt not to push your views at all and just let everything be a breezy, non-threatening sharing of views where you evade the risk of conflict inherent in trying to convince. I wanted to say, well, what if you do want to convince, “how can you do that in the least offensive /least threatening ways?” (I should also note, there is some more advice left out of this post that is in the earlier posts in the series too.)


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