The five rules of arguing (and winning)
You have a voice. Use it wisely.
Ever since I was a little girl, I have heard that I always had an answer to shout back to anyone who challenged me. I guess that was true. There were no consequences, I could just say anything and still be a cute, smart little girl.
Fast forward to high school. I remember that time when I was so mad with our art teacher because she wouldn’t let us play with the paper porridge. She had promised us! So, obviously, I thought it was my right, and duty, to protest, on behalf of the entire class. We were deceived! I don’t exactly remember how it happened, but the truth is that in the end, the poor teacher was taken outside the classroom, crying over my accusation of lying. I must add that I was never a bully, nor did I have any problems with any other students. There was just something inside me, pushing me to fight the unfairness of the high school world! Because of this…let’s call it a special temper of mine, I have been called a lot of things. From mean to bossy, even aggressive sometimes. It is not easy to cope with it, but I realized I prefer to be bossy than be the crying victim. With time though, I learned that life doesn’t need to be a constant war zone. I realized that, sometimes, we should just let it go. I also realized that, if we want to be heard, it is more efficient if we follow some ground rules. It is not how much you talk about something, but rather what you say and when you say it.
- Think of what is really important to you. What will it change for you, if you decide to enter this specific argument? Is your work colleague being unreasonable over small things? Yes, that is annoying. But think how annoying it must be to constantly waste your energy over meaningless stuff. People are what they are, convince yourself you will not change them. Be sure that you are doing a good job, and avoid futile, poisonous arguments, that will only drain your energy.
- Never shout at the ones that are below you. I have always had some issues with authority, more specifically, with the abuse of it. A few weeks ago, a PhD student came to me complaining of how she wanted to scream at the master student she was helping in the lab, because of his ineptitude to perform some experiments. I told her at the time: People need to learn. They need the time, the opportunity, and someone to show them how things are done. It is tempting when you are in a place where you have some power over another person, to exert some of that power, and release perhaps a few hidden, deep personal frustrations. Because you are in a position of power, you know they won’t fight you back. Don’t do it. Always walk in other people’s shoes.
- Save your energy to protest with the ones above you, those who should know better and must be accountable. I grew in a very conservative family, under the shadow of my overprotective father. Growing up, the final word was always his, and what he’d say, was the law. I was not allowed to sleep over at any friend's house, much less go out at a bar or disco. Until, one day, I decided to inform him that I was going out with my friends, I didn’t know what time I would be back, but I had already made arrangements to be brought home safely. He was so shocked, he had no answer, and there I went to my first night out with my friends. This was the first time I realized that if you are confident in yourself, people hear you better. Also, make a strategy in your mind, plan for what you want to say. Let the others know that, sometimes, you are not open to discussion.
- Ask, ask, ask. There are no stupid questions. With the exception of the last year and a half, I have always worked in the academic world. Especially during the five years of my PhD, I learned the importance of asking and the value of asking good questions. If you ask the right question, you settle the grounds to support your argument. That is why one should never be afraid of asking anything. Ask in a way that makes the other person give you a straight answer. Break their answer into parts, extract the meaning of all words, and think of what every single word means to you. And please, do not discuss semantics, that is the resource of the weak! This is, for me, the foundation of any good scientific discussion. I always remember these principles when entering a discussion, either at work, with my family, or with my friends. It doesn’t mean I always get to be 100% calm. I have, what we call it here, hot blood. So, I recognize that, sometimes, I am a bit difficult to argue with (I am working on that!).
- Listen, listen, listen. Don’t give in to your pride. Yes, we all want to win an argument, because you know, in the beginning, we are always right. Well… no. In any discussion, listening is as important (if not more) than speaking up for yourself. I have learned over the years that if you listen to people, if you take the time to try and understand them, then they are more open to listening to you. So, don’t focus on your own reasons alone. Listen to the other person in the room. Try to figure out how their arguments may be used to favor your cause. And, importantly, do not be blind by your pride. Sometimes (a lot of times!), if you are willing to listen, you may build upon your initial idea, with the vision of others, and improve what was already a good start.
Today, I would have probably asked better and listened carefully to the art teacher. Maybe she just forgot, maybe she was having a really bad day. However, I still think she should have had let us play with the paper porridge. We would have made her a really bad, heartfelt, paper flower.