How to Win Arguments without Coming off as Closedminded

How to Win Arguments without Coming off as Closedminded July 1, 2013

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.

If you are interested in counseling sessions write me with the subject heading “Philosophical Practice”. All sessions are confidential. And it does not matter where you are in the world; philosophical practitioners are not bound by state certification requirements and restrictions, so you and I can meet online.

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