I teach rhetoric and critical thinking – how to spin and unspin arguments, and above all, how to do it evenhandedly – to critique our own opinions as carefully as we do our opposition’s, and to puff up their arguments as readily as we puff up ours.

Evenhandedness doesn’t come naturally. We tend to spin arguments we like and apply critical thinking to arguments we oppose. We’re much more likely to say, “I’m right; you’re wrong and here’s why,” than we are to say “You’re right; I’m wrong and here’s why,” and not just because our arguments are better than theirs. We all just tend to fluff up what our gut tells us and pick apart what their gut tells them differently.

If everyone is spinning up their arguments and unspinning other people’s arguments, then maybe it’s not safe to spin and unspin evenhandedly. You don’t want to be out there saying, “Hey, maybe you’re right,” to a bunch of people who assume they are.

But actually it’s all in how you do it, and if you do it right, you win friends, influence and wisdom.

Friends: People like us best when we hear and understand them, and we like them better too when we understand them.

Influence: People find us more credible when we hear and understand them, and we also learn what is likely to sway them.

Wisdom: More than we notice, confidence in our own opinions is borne of ignoring counter-arguments. Wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments, for example, the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for serenity or courage. Wisdom is facing tradeoffs and it doesn’t make us any less confident or firm in our convictions. You can still think “this situation definitely calls for courage, not serenity,” even when you know that it might call for serenity. Wisdom doesn’t prevent placing firm bets. It just prevents forgetting that they are bets.

I’ve developed some games that give students solid practice in evenhandedness. They can be played in any setting – business retreats, family dinners, first dates, classrooms, even solitaire, and at any age. They limber up our grip on conviction and self-certainty.

  1. Counter-argument: Before explaining the game, have people write down a belief they hold with great conviction and give it to someone else to hold. Then students take turns giving a two-minute speech in favor of the opposite position. Students then vote on how compelling it is, counting against it any sarcasm or parody of the argument. The paper is proof that it really was a counter-argument.
     
  2. Tightrope: Have students wonder aloud about some difficult choice between two options they face, the more difficult the better. Get a blind vote from students on whether the wondering was purely neutral or leaned to one side or the other. Students win if the votes are a wash, as many votes saying the student leaned one way as the other, the rest saying it was neutral.
     
  3. Fuming fairly: This is a little too sensitive for students, but it’s a great test of one’s ability to philosophize. See how fair and balanced you can be about something that has just seared your heart. For example, if you were recently dumped by a long-time lover, can you still factor in that all is fair in love and war? When you’re among the have-nots, can you still acknowledge that life has always been unfair, and so the unfairness to you is not some violation of the laws of nature?
  4. Flaunting fairly: Conversely, if you’re flying high on good luck, can you still speak about the unfairness of life?  This is also difficult. The lucky tend to assume that their skill alone made them what they are.
     
  5. Mirroring: Though this may be a familiar game, it can never get enough attention. In a conflict with someone, stop and say “Before we go on, let me make sure I understand you – not that I necessarily agree with you. You’re saying that…” and then make the best case you can for your opponent’s perspective. Afterwards, ask “Do I understand you correctly?” and listen to their answer, and then trying again until you get it right.

There are other ways to make friends, but they’re not as wise. You can make friends only with those who agree with you about everything, or are so backed-off by your bluster that they wouldn’t dare let on that they disagree. Surrounding yourself with yes-men is not likely to give one much influence either.

Wisdom emerges from arguments among friends, people who can hear each other and in the process gain balanced insight into the pros and cons of everything.

And paradoxically so does true conviction. We know where to stand firm when we understand the counter-stance.