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Don’t Argue

(with rare exceptions)

PIxabay, Public Domain
Source: PIxabay, Public Domain

Arguing rarely changes anyone’s mind—even your spouse's. More often, it merely hardens positions. And in the case of politics, it can create a permanent rift. A Stanford study found that people’s political views are more strongly held even than views on race and gender.

Perhaps arguing’s greatest benefit is that it clarifies your thinking—Adrenalized in that competitive situation, you may clarify and more clearly articulate your position. But that benefit can be derived without arguing’s side effects by writing in a journal or stating your opinion aloud when you're alone.

Of course, if you have the rare gift of stating your opinions without generating antipathy, the benefits of arguing may outweigh the liabilities and, who knows, you just might change minds. Or, if you can manage to be more open-minded than most and really consider what the other person is arguing, you might even change your own mind and thus grow. As U.S. Congressman Frank Clark said, “We find comfort among those who agree with us, growth among those who don’t.”

And there are times, you just can't stop yourself. I can't think of one romantic couple that could always restrain themselves from arguing, even though they know they're beating a dead horse. "Why can't you keep the place clean, dammit?!" And the place remains a sty.

Of course, there are times it’s worth arguing.

  • Certain forums demand it, for example, in a workplace meeting. But even there, it’s usually wise to search for points of agreement and opportunities to build on what the person said, by offering an example or implication.
  • Your view is consistent with the zeitgeist: for example, arguing that women and minorities deserve yet more redistribution. Arguing the other side would require too much of a change for most people. The result of taking such a position is too often becoming the target of today’s most weaponized words: “sexist!” or “racist!”
  • You’ve built such a fund of good will, the issue is important enough, and the chance of changing minds is great enough to justify spending some of that good will.
  • You decide that your desire to state your position is worth a high price, for example, that you can’t live with yourself if you don’t speak up for an unpopular position. Alas, most such efforts are mere thimbles against a tidal wave—Chances are, you’ll be drowned in the undertow. I am sad to have said that. Among my most strongly held views is that wisdom resides across the ideological spectrum, but I’d be a head-in-the-clouds pontificator if I didn’t acknowledge today’s realities.

The takeaway

Of course, there’s a time when, for pragmatic or cosmic-justice reasons, you feel the need to fight for what you want, to argue fervently for your position. And sometimes, you just can't restrain yourself from arguing—We're just human after all. But after a lifetime of doing that, looking back, it strikes me that I, and most people I know who tend to be argumentative, have gained little and lost much from arguing.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

More from Marty Nemko Ph.D.
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