Evanston RoundTable, Jan. 26, 1979
Everyone has an opinion on things, even the people who tell you they don’t.
It’s not that they really don’t. More often than not they just don’t want to express an opinion. Maybe they’re uncertain about it. Or maybe, in these politically heated times, they’re afraid to mix it up with folks on the opposite side, especially if those folks are forceful and articulate. Who are we to tangle with the enraged, engaged opposition?
But in life, having opinions – learning how to acquire knowledge and ideas, then how to express them cogently and intelligently, is one of the greatest gifts, and a necessity for healthy discourse in a vibrant democracy. Or even just to hold up one’s end in a conversation.
There are a few tricks to arguing intelligently, and the most important is to appear not to argue! It starts with being a good listener, someone who shows genuine and respectful interest in hearing and understanding what the other person has to say.
Leaning into a conversation like that accomplishes two things. First, it helps ensure that you really do get it, that you put your own thinking aside long enough to connect with the other person’s point of view. Second, it signals complete and sincere commitment to understanding, which can help move both sides closer together.
Next, find common ground. Even in heated political discussions, there is a lot on which both sides can agree. For example: we both love our country (or state, county, city, policy, or candidate); we both want to see it or them succeed; and we are not arguing our position because either of us is fatuous, dogmatic, or out of our minds!
Make a nod in that direction, with such phrases as, “I see your point.” “I didn’t know that,” “I agree with you there,” or “I know what you mean.” It helps to rephrase the other person’s argument, just to make sure you get it right and to signal to the other person that you’re listening.
In response, marshal your facts. Keep an even, non-judgmental tone. Avoid any appearance of being impatient or patronizing. Do not, under any circumstance, raise your voice, even if the other person does. Listen as much as speak.
The goal should be to work through a problem together, cooperatively, to arrive at some mutual understanding and agreement. That way, both sides have gained something, including respect as well as knowledge.
In a speech last year, President Obama said that during his time as a community organizer, “…we engaged and we listened, and we kept working until we built consensus.”
Even if you don’t reach consensus, hopefully you can walk away from the discussion feeling you’ve learned and imparted new insights.