I suppose many of us have been arguing, often on the same subjects over and over again with the same person: a spouse, a friend, or a child. How can I ever get through to the other, we wonder in exasperation, faced sometimes with what seems like a brick wall. The more we batter away, the more stubborn and recalcitrant our opponent becomes.
One might arbitrarily divide most of us into two loose categories, one probably as bad as the other: the hysterical type and the obsessional. The hysterics often seem easier to convince: they sway like a weed in the wind, and sometimes seem persuaded by an argument, but basically they remain attached, as the weed does to the soil, to the same opinion no matter what we say or do. Then there are the obsessional types who seem rigidly unable even to consider another point of view. So what can we do if anything?
First of all we might remember the old saying: “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Sometimes people can be seduced into agreement with a kind word, a compliment or a gesture. Gestures often speak louder than words.
The trick is, too, to lead the other to the conclusion we want him to reach, giving him the impression that he himself has actually found the solution we had in mind all along which may require some skill.
I remember a wonderful teacher who taught me history in South Africa a long time ago. She must have been a beautiful woman in her youth but now seemed aged to me though I still admired her large blue eyes. She would tell us what had happened before and then ask us what we thought would have happened next, which gave us the impression that we had, ourselves, discovered or even invented the march of history, one thing following on inevitably from the next. It was a brilliant method, and we never forgot what we ourselves had come up with. So, in an argument, if we can skillfully lead the other to discover what we would like them to on their own, the battle is won.
Of course, this does not always work. A light touch, though, a little humor, and a cheerful tone can help enormously to diffuse an argument and perhaps turn the tide in our favor . Sometimes our opponents may be looking to provoke us with a favorite argument or even to cause us distress, knowing exactly what subject will set us off.
I suppose we all have our pet peeves, our sensitive spots( certainly in my case it is my children), and certain subjects that we feel particularly strongly about be they political or personal. An opponent, who knows us well, will have learned what they are. If we don’t rise to the bait, if we avoid this pitfall, and don’t take the other’s words too seriously, we can sometimes outwit an adversary in the game. We can continue to hold onto our essential beliefs and convictions and act as we think right despite opposition. We can avoid the argument by not taking our opponents words too seriously or reacting too dramatically and thus avoiding the trap.
It is important, though, it seems to me, not to let anyone bully you, and there are those who take pleasure in another’s pain. So try a little seduction, lighten the tone, come up with a little joke if you can, and don’t dissolve into fury or tears which don’t work too well most of the time. And if all else fails one can always just do what seems right, despite someone else’s contrary opinion.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud. She will teach a class called "The Writer in Fiction" at the Center for Fiction. Sign up for the first class which is on Sept 17.