In a world full of distractions, my best tactic for staying engaged in my courses is to remember their real-world applications. This semester, I took a communications class called Arguments and Advocacy. In the first chapter of the course textbook, Arguments and Arguing, states that it is a book “about arguments—the claims that people make when they are asserting their opinions and supporting their beliefs—and arguing—the process of resolving differences of opinion through communication.” I cannot think of a more noble study than one that helps us resolve differences of opinion effectively, respectfully, and educationally. This article will outline three applicable, every-day approaches to improving your own argument skills in order to simplify your life, navigate nuanced issues and solutions, and build confidence in advocating for yourself and others.
1. Willpower is not an unlimited resource, and as arguers, we must exercise discernment in what we are focused on addressing.
Each decision we make is, in essence, the solution determined by an internal argument. After weighing the pros and cons, you opt to get a coffee after class rather than before. And, because you know too much caffeine gives you the jitters, you make that coffee decaf. You evaluate a slew of factors in order to reach your conclusion. The average person makes 35,000 decisions a day. All these decisions can be exhausting, leading to a phenomenon known as decision fatigue, defined in The Washington Post as, “a state of mental overload that can impede our ability to make additional decisions.” In academic arguments and debates, it is often ceded that audiences have shared premises that they agree on; opposing sides of the argument are not necessarily in fundamental disagreement, but, rather, might differ on what solution to a particular issue should prevail. These shared premises help streamline arguments. A way to mimic this strategy in our own decision-making (arguing) is to reflect on what our principles are. If our principles involve valuing a healthy lifestyle, performing well in school, and prioritizing meaningful connection, we can focus on decisions in alignment with those principles and differentiate them from other distractions. When we know what our priorities are, we are not as easily conflicted by everything else we could possibly be doing. We experience less decision fatigue, and can invest our newfound energy in actually accomplishing the goals we have set.
Angela Duckworth refers to this strategy as having a goal hierarchy. She encourages readers of her acclaimed book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance to establish their own goal hierarchy, with an emphasis on clarifying what their ultimate, top-level goal is, and ask themselves with “every small decision that I need to make today or tomorrow, if I put it to that test, does this or does this not further that top-level goal?” We can interpret our own decisions and arguments about what to-do and not-to-do with this simple question, which frees us to focus on living the lives we dream of.
2. Aside from internal arguments, arguments we engage in with other people require a different set of principles. Being an effective arguer demands active listening, a type of listening that is not reliant on crafting a response but on hearing the views of one’s opponent. A good rule of thumb in any argument is prioritizing being kind with the same resoluteness as being right.
There are three main types of propositions involved in arguments: propositions of fact, policy, and value. A proposition of value, for instance, is that the women belong in all places where decisions are made, as stated by the beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A proposition of policy tangential to the aforementioned proposition of value, is that the United States government should introduce quota requirements into Congress positions that ensure women and members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities are represented by their legislators. A proposition of fact that supports the previous claims is that women make up 50.8% of the US population but compose just 27.4% of Congress seats. There are many emotions that might arise in you, especially if you are a women or someone who is femme-idenitifying, upon seeing those percentages. When crafting an argument, you do not have to set emotion aside, but it is important to understand your audience and their own emotions about the issue (or lack thereof.)
Remembering that your goal in arguing–as stated above– is “resolving differences of opinion through communication.” Strong arguers not only know when to pick their battles, but they also recognize that, as the incredible Audre Lorde famously said, “it is not difference that immobilizes, but silence.” Actively listening to those with alternative viewpoints than our own with the intent of hearing them helps us actually formulate better arguments. The more we understand about the people we disagree with, the better we can find solutions to complex issues that can be implemented far and widely. After all, creating change is not as simple as being right; doing good relies on kindness and humility as well as education and information. Many women are afraid to be argumentative, as demonstrated by the fact that one of the most prominent social norms women feel obligated to uphold is to be accommodating and polite. Prioritizing being kind in arguments, however, is not synonymous with being a people-pleaser; people pleasing fails to resolve differences of opinion because the pleaser will shapeshift her own argument into one palatable for the person she aims to accommodate. People-pleasing is not an act of kindness, because by watering down our truth and our own valuable voices, we rob the world of all that we have to say. Again, it is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence–the silence derived from zipping our lips in order to preserve the comfort of people around us, oftentimes at our own expense Being compassionate while arguing with someone, rather, is simply choosing to recognize another’s humanity and opinions, knowing when to agree to disagree with someone, and allowing our emotions to fuel our argument rather than blind us to any gaps in it.
3. Becoming a better arguer involves a willingness to see the world in many shades of gray, rather than simply black or white. Refined arguments aim to address nuances and complexities of issues. Effective arguers understand different angles of their arguments, and might even agree with opposing views to an extent. What distinguishes efficient arguers is their ability to present well-structured arguments that not only refute their opponent’s proposed solutions but also offer their own multi-faceted solutions instead.
Strong critical thinking skills are widely accepted as markers of one’s hireability. Practicing formulating arguments that analyze and refute alternative arguments is a great way to strengthen your own critical thinking muscle. We live in a very complex, ever-changing world, so being able to think about situations through a lens of wisdom, patience, and skepticism is a quality that will serve us well in professional settings and beyond. The most pressing concerns in our world today–climate change, threats to democracy, population growth, systemic racism, et cetera–more than likely require a multitude of solutions at various intervention levels, including individual and collective efforts. A competent arguer knows it is not effective to poke holes in another’s arguments, but, rather, to craft their own argument with a better proposed solution and describe why their solution is more effective at getting at the heart of the contended issue.
4. And, surprise! One more for good luck: do not be afraid to be your own best advocate.
As women, it is important that we move beyond our fears as being marginalized or sideline–being labeled a “b**tch,” “too emotional,” or a “feminist killjoy,” being able to earn how to argue well requires us not to be too afraid to speak up in the first place. By practicing advocating for ourselves and what we believe in–through implementing practices such as informing ourselves well, thinking critically, and arguing intentionally–we improve our lives and the lives around us. Effective arguing is a skill that can ignite lasting, impactful change. Lucky for us, it is a skill that is relatively simple to hone, starting with adopting these three tips that we have just discussed!