How to disagree well: 7 of the best and worst ways to argue

A classic essay defines different ways to disagree, from the worst to the best, with lessons that ring true in our divisive times.

The hierarchy of disagreement, by Paul Graham.
The hierarchy of disagreement, by Paul Graham.

Many find themselves arguing with someone on the Internet, especially in these days fraught with political tensions. A great tool, the web also seems to drive dispute. It is also a reflection of the larger reality, where divisiveness has spread throughout our society. A classic essay from one of the Internet’s pioneers suggests that there is a way to harness such negative energy of the online world and disagree with people without invoking anger—a lesson that extends far beyond the web.


Paul Graham is an English-born computer programmer with a Ph.D. from Harvard, an accomplished entrepreneur, a VC capitalist as well as a writer. He created the first online store application which he sold to Yahoo and was one of the founders of the famous Y Combinator—a startup incubator that funded over 1,500 startups like Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit, and Coinbase. Being a true Renaissance man, Graham also studied painting at the Academia di Belle Arti in Florence and the Rhode Island Institute of Design as well as philosophy at Cornell University. 

Dubbed “the hacker philosopher” by the tech journalist Steven Levy, Graham has written on a number of subjects on his popular blog at paulgraham.com, which got 34 million pages views in 2015. One of his most lasting contributions has been the now-classic essay 'How to disagree' where he proposed the hierarchy of disagreement which is as relevant today as it was in 2008 when it was first published. 


Mark Bui (L) and Donna Saady (R) argue in front of the White House while MoveOn PAC members and supporters marched in protest of the Bush Administration's handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster relief September 8, 
2005, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his essay, Graham proposed that the “web is turning writing into a conversation,” recognizing that the internet has become an unprecedented medium of communication. In particular, it allows people to respond to others in comment threads, on forums and the like. And when we respond on the web, we tend to disagree, concluded Graham. 

He says this tendency towards disagreement is structurally built into the online experience because in disagreeing, people tend to have much more to say than if they just expressed that they agreed. Interestingly, Graham points out that, even though it might feel like it if you spend much time in comment sections, the world is not necessarily getting angrier. But it could if we don’t observe a certain restraint in how we disagree. To disagree better, which will lead to better conversations and happier outcomes, Graham came up with these seven levels of a disagreement hierarchy (DH): 

DH0. Name-calling

To Graham, this is the lowest level of argument. This is when you call people names. That can be done crudely by saying repulsive things like “u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!” or even more pretentiously (but still to the same effect) like, “The author is a self-important dilettante,” wrote the computer scientist.

DH1. Ad hominem

An argument of this kind attacks the person rather than the point they are making—the literal Latin translation of this phrase is: ‘to the person.’ It involves somehow devaluing a person’s opinion by devaluing the one who is expressing it, without directly addressing what they are saying. “The question is whether the author is correct or not,” pointed out Graham.


John Pope (L) expresses his disagreement with supporters of President Donald Trump near the Mar-a-Lago resort home of President Trump on March 4, 
2017, in West Palm Beach, Florida. President Trump spent part of the weekend at the house. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

DH2. Responding to tone.

This is a slightly more evolved form of disagreement when the debate moves away from personal attacks to addressing the content of the argument. The lowest form of responding to writing is disagreeing with the author’s tone, according to Graham. For example, one could point out the “cavalier” or “flippant” attitude with which a writer formulated their opinion. But why does that really matter, especially when judging tone can be quite subjective? Stick to the material, Graham advises: “It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what [their] tone is.”

DH3. Contradiction

This is a higher form of addressing the actual meat of the argument. In this form of disagreement, you offer an opposing case but very little evidence. You simply state what you think is true, in contrast to the position of the person you are arguing with. Graham gives this example:

"I can't believe the author dismisses intelligent design in such a cavalier fashion. Intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory."

DH4. Counterargument

This next level sets us up on the path to having more productive disputes. A counterargument is a contradiction with evidence and reasoning. When it’s “aimed squarely at the original argument, it can be convincing,” wrote Graham. But, alas, more often than not, passionate arguments end up having both participants actually arguing about different things. They just don’t see it.


Paul Graham. Credit: Flickr/pragdave

DH5. Refutation 

This is the most convincing form of disagreement, argues Graham. But it requires work so people don’t do this as often as they should. In general, the higher you go on the pyramid of disagreement, “the fewer instances you find.” 

A good way to refute someone is to quote them back to themselves and pick a hole in that quote to expose a flaw. It’s important to find an actual quote to disagree with—“the smoking gun”—and address that.

DH6. Refuting the central point

This tactic is the “most powerful form of disagreement,” contended Graham. It depends on what you are talking about but largely entails refuting someone’s central point. This is in contrast to refuting only minor points of an argument—a form of “deliberate dishonesty” in a debate. An example of that would be correcting someone’s grammar (which slides you back to DH1 level) or pointing out factual errors in names or numbers. Unless those are crucial details, attacking them only serves to discredit the opponent, not their main idea. 

The best way to refute someone is to figure out their central point, or one of them if there are several issues involved.  

This is how Graham described “a truly effective refutation”: 

The author's main point seems to be x. As he says:

<quotation>

But this is wrong for the following reasons... 

Having these tools in evaluating how we argue with each other can go a long way towards regaining some civility in our discourse by avoiding the unproductive lower forms of disagreement. Whether its trolls of other nations or our own home-grown trolls and confused spirits, the conversation over the Internet leaves a lot to be desired for many Americans. It’s hard not to see it as a social malady.

Graham also viewed his hierarchy as a way to weed out dishonest arguments or “fake news” in modern parlance. Forceful words are just a “defining quality of a demagogue,” he pointed out. By understanding the different forms of their disagreement, “we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons,” wrote Graham.

Read the full essay here: How to Disagree.

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Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

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