We live in divisive times.
When it comes to divisive issues, everyone has an opinion. They always have. But it seems like today everyone feels like they have to share that opinion and that others have to listen and even have to agree. If they don’t, they’re stupid or bigoted, or worse (I actually can’t picture worse than those two options).
In these sorts of circumstances, the truth is you can’t win arguments anymore.
Psychologists have known for some time now about a “backfire” effect when it comes to arguments. We think that if someone introduces facts that challenge or outright debunk our positions or opinions, we’ll change our minds. But we rarely do. In fact, it’s much more likely that we’ll become more entrenched in our positions and more focused on repeating the same facts that got us there.
So I propose we refine what “winning” means when it comes to arguments.
You don’t win when you change someone’s mind. You probably won’t change their mind anyway, and they probably won’t change yours. You win when you gain empathy for the other person and fully understand their supporting facts, their reasoning, and their opinion. When you can see the other person and understand their opinion and not think they’re stupid or bigoted or worse. Then you win.
When you understand them. Then you’ve won.
Imagine how much useful public events like panels and debates would be if that were the goal. Imagine how much more cable news shows would be to general public if that were the goal of the talking heads. (Yes, it would probably be less watched as well…but that would be a good thing too.)
What you need isn’t a rhetorical tool kit to help you disassemble other people’s arguments. What you need are instruments that will help you weigh and measure their position. It’s okay if you still don’t agree at the end. You were probably going to disagree anyway. But it’s not okay if you leave the argument understanding even less of their perspective.
You win when you understand the other person fully, and when they understand you.