How We Can Argue Better

“Presidential candidate George Bush will be active in making pronouncements in the coming weeks… He wants to define himself before his opponents do it for him,” intoned a radio commentator when the previous Bush became president. Yes, nicknames stick. “To name a thing is not the same as to know a thing,” Richard Feynman wrote, yet naming is a potent persuasion tool.

In fact, your ability to successfully label a person, product or political campaign is probably the most powerful way to influence others’ perceptions of their choices.  (Too many choices frustrate us.) Consequently, be armed to argue well. As hot opinions swirl around our presidential campaign and economic troubles, here are some nuggets from Anthony Weston’s pithy  Rulebook for Arguments:

1. “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”In seeking possible explanations, solutions or causes, Weston suggests that we keep looking for more options, rather than immediately narrowing them. That way, we can state our case more fairly, and possibly head off objections more effectively.

2. Find out what other sides consider the strongest arguments for their position.   Also, I suggest that you find the best evidence and most vivid examples they use or could use to support their positions.

3. Preemptively raise possible counter-arguments. Develop them in sufficient detail that your readers will fully appreciate the position you are disarming.

4. Avoid using two “great fallacies”:

- Generalizing from incomplete information.

- Overlooking alternative explanations.

5. In writing your view:

• Use definite, specific, concrete language.

• Develop one idea per paragraph. Don’t “fence more land than you can plow. One argument well-developed is better than three only sketched.” Attempting otherwise is akin to offering “ten very leaky buckets to one well-sealed one.”

• Get to the point quickly. Avoid redundancy and unnecessary details. (See, also the Heaths’ warning regarding “semantic stretch”).

• State your conclusion clearly, directly and briefly.

6. Emotionally loaded or prejudicial language “preaches only to the converted.”

• Careful presentation of the facts can itself convert.” Moreover,

• “It is not a mistake to have strong views. The mistake is to have nothing else.”

7. Stay open to changing your mind or improving your approach by incorporating others’ ideas, giving them fulsome credit for their insights.  (Lincoln would be proud of you.)

Here’s an extraordinary, recent example of two ambitious leaders arguing agreeably about a BIG issue.

Ready for more on decisionmaking traps? T o better understand yourself in relationship to others – and for more ideas to move from me to we – read about Nudge, Sway, Multiplicity, On Being Certain, The Starfish and the Spider and Here Comes Everybody.

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