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Op/Ed

How to win every argument from now on, the right way

(EDITORIAL) If you have to start an argument then you need the right understanding of what is convincing and what can be dismissed out of hand.

Freelancers and entrepreneurs working together in a meeting room, two men and two women, discussing over a laptop instead of starting an argument.

Take a look at your Facebook and Twitter feed or the comments on any news post. If there’s one thing it would seem nobody has any trouble with these days, it’s arguing.

There’s arguing for fun and frustration … OG/prequels! Cake/Pie! Over the roll/under the roll! Yelling, trolling, poking with a stick.

And then there’s ARGUING… reasoned, productive, and substantive discussions that get you somewhere in the real world.

No, wait, hear me out!

More than 10 years ago, tech entrepreneur Paul Graham laid out a “hierarchy of disagreement,” attempting to sort out the various levels of argument into a tool that could turn those arguments into something useful. Lately – just in time for 2022’s inevitable fracas, right? – the infographic makers at Adioma have laid that hierarchy out in a simple visualization that aims to make disagreement simpler to navigate and agreement easier to reach:

Essentially, the easiest arguments to toss out there are the ones you post without a pause. The inflammatory “YOU SUCK” (level 1) and “whaddaya expect from an over-the-roll bro?” (level 2). The reactionary “oh YEAH?” and “well WHAT ABOUT” (level 4). They add nothing to the discussion, change nobody’s mind, and pretty much keep the hostilities simmering.

Back in 2008 when he wrote the essay, Graham pointed out “a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier. Particularly online, where it’s easy to say things you’d never say face to face.” Welcome to the Thunderdome. The most innocuous comment can be taken completely the wrong way (level 3), and this toxic shift in tone spills more and more often into offline interactions as well.

But here’s where the real-life benefits to this hierarchy come into play. Leaving Facebook and Twitter and the news comment sections aside – because let’s face it, all pretty much black holes where reasonable people can be sucked into nothingness – there is value to constructive argument.

Constructive argument – levels 5, 6, and 7 – deals with an issue at hand, not personality. It keeps civility on the table. It allows for back-and-forth, for discussion. Put it to work in the office, and it smooths the way in staff interactions and negotiations. Put it to work in the marketplace, and it creates stronger client and customer bonds. And yes, put it to work online in a company feed, and it strengthens customer service and can even help you build relationships based on respect for your open communication.

Coming at a disagreement with an eye towards understanding the other point of view and reaching agreement, rather than an eye towards scoring easy points, isn’t painless. The years since Graham pointed out the peril of online anger have not been kind to public discourse, and the person you’re arguing with may not be there right away for your empathy and bridge-building.

But as one of the great (country and) Western philosophers once asked, what would you be if you didn’t even try? You’d be stuck down on level 1 of Paul Graham’s pyramid with the trolls and the cranks, that’s what. Level up.

With her invaluable degree in English and clips from her journalism career tucked firmly under one arm, Kim Usey relocated to Austin from New Orleans 13 years ago and has spent her time working with non-profits, rescuing dogs, raising children, and driving visitors out to Snow’s on random Saturday mornings for brisket and pork steak breakfast. She has a playlist for each of her two scenic routes if you ever want to tag along.

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