Why winning isn't the real purpose of arguing

Do you really want to win an argument, or do you want to find mutual ground and understanding?

Jordan Peterson: So how do you deal with situations where your words are likely to be used out of context, let’s say.

And that’s a situation I’ve encountered. Well, you see, you encounter a situation like that very frequently. Everyone does in their life. If you’re having a discussion with someone you live with, for example, so someone you have to be with for a long time – a lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband—sibling for that matter. You’re going to have contentious discussions about how to move forward and it’s very frequently the case that your words will be – that you’ll be straw-manned. Your words will be taken out of context.

The other person (and you too!) will try to win instead of trying to solve the problem. What you have to kind of decide is – well two things. The first thing is: you’re probably wrong in some important way. And you might think “Well, so what?” But no, it’s not so simple. Being wrong in some important way is like having a map that doesn’t correspond to the streets.

If you’re wrong in some important way, when you go to where you’re going you will get lost and you might end up in a neighborhood that you don’t want to visit! So it actually matters if you’re wrong.

And so now if you’re talking to someone who is acting in opposition to you, it’s possible that during your contentious discussion they will tell you something—about how you’re wrong—that’s accurate. Now you’re not going to be very happy about that, because like who wants to discover that they’re wrong?

But it’s better to figure out that your map is inaccurate than it is to get lost.

And so one of the things you have to remember when you’re discussing things with people, even if they’re out to defeat you, let’s say, is that there is some glimmering of the possibility that you could walk away with more knowledge than you walked in with.

And that’s worth – that can be worth paying quite a price for.

And so I’ve had the opportunity to engage in public debate of an exceptionally contentious nature for let’s say 18 months nonstop, fundamentally. And it’s been very stressful. But the upshot of that is that my arguments are in much better shape than they were, and—I shouldn’t say that. My THOUGHTS are much more refined than they were at the beginning of this process. It’s not my arguments are in better shape. That’s not the right way to think about it.

It’s that I’m clearer about what I know. I can articulate it better. And that’s all forged in the heat of conflict.

If you’re discussing a contentious issue with someone you love and that you have to live with and put up with, you want to listen to them. Because what you really want to do is establish a lasting peace, and you might even have to make their arguments for them. Maybe you’re more verbally fluent than your partner (which doesn’t mean, by the way, that you’re more right, it just means you can construct better arguments on the fly. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re more accurate).

You might have to help your partner formulate their arguments so that you can really get to grips with what it is that they’re trying to say. So that you can alter the way that you’re constructing your own narrative and your joint narrative, so that you’re not butting heads unnecessarily as you move forward through life.

It’s not a very good idea to win an argument with your wife. That isn’t what you want, because then you have a defeated partner. And a defeated partner is not happy. And a defeated partner is often out to reclaim the defeat.

And so as a strategy for moving forward with someone who you’re going to wake up beside 5,000 times it’s not a very advisable strategy. It’s better to listen, to flesh out the argument on both sides, and to see if you can come to a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement. And that’s the case in most encounters in life if you can manage that. But it’s easy to want to win.

One of the things I do in my psychology seminar is I assign papers to students and then I extract out propositions from the papers. And they’re propositions that are debatable. And so then I outline the Pro side and I outline the Con side. Like “if you agreed with this, this is what you’d think”.

If you disagreed with this, this is what you’d think. Then I divide the students into groups, like four people per group. “You four are pro. You four are con. You’ve got 20 minutes to make a pro argument. You’ve got 20 minutes to make a con argument. We’ll go around the table and we’ll see how, you know, we’ll have each group rate the other and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

Well, what you want to do as an educator is you don’t want to put forward a specific point of view. Not when what you’re trying to do is to discuss a contentious issue! What you want to do is teach people how to take an argument apart and formulate a response. And to do that it’s actually extraordinarily useful to arbitrarily assign positions to people. It’s like, I don’t care what you think, you’re “pro” on this topic, generate an argument.” And what that does is it vastly widens people’s conceptualizations of the argumentative space.

Because most really contentious issues – gun control, abortion, those sorts of things—there is a lot to be said on both sides. They wouldn’t be contentious issues otherwise.They’re issues that don’t go away. Well why? Well because they’re so complex. They don’t lend themselves to easy unitary solutions.

One of the things you want to learn if you’re educated is that on any complex subject there’s a lot to be said. And that you’re going to come at that with your particular ideological bias, let’s say, your temperamental bias. Maybe even you might even come at it with things you’ve actually thought about, although that’s pretty damn rare. But you need to learn just exactly how localized your viewpoint is. There’s psychology experiments that demonstrate this quite clearly.

So imagine that you come into my lab and I ask you whether you’re “pro abortion” or “pro life”. And I get you to rate that on a scale.

Maybe you say, “Well, on a scale of one to ten, I’m eight prolife.” And I say “Okay, now you have to write a 500 word essay that’s opposed to your position.” Okay? That’s the experiment. And then I bring you back two weeks later and I ask you to rate your position on the same scale. It will have shifted substantially to the position that you delineated in your written report.

And the reason for that is that most people’s arguments are unbelievably shallow. They’re not arguments, they’re just perceptual biases. That’s one way of thinking about them. And if you get people to delineate out the space in any rigorous manner then their attitudes shift. What you really want and if you’re going to engage in a discussion about say something like gun control is you want to be familiar with the entire range of arguments—deeply familiar. And have some respect for them.

I mean it’s pretty clear that guns kill people. They’re dangerous. But then it’s also not self-evident that the only entities that should be allowed to be dangerous are the state entities. So there’s things that can be said that are intelligent across that entire distribution of opinion. And if you’re educated then you should be conversant with the entire range of opinions.

So that’s one approach as an educator, is to teach people how to analyze an argument and to formulate their opinions. You do people a great service by – that’s teaching them how to think. Not what to think, but how to think.

Now when I lecture my psychology courses which is a different approach let’s say, I take a position on the literature because I have to.

There’s no being neutral about the literature. What am I going to do, pick random studies? It’s like that isn’t how people work. I have a body of knowledge and it stems partly from my biases and from my temperaments. But it’s an informed body of opinion. But what I presented to the students as is, like look, this is my take on the literature. That doesn’t mean I’m right! It means that I’m an informed observer. I’m an informed, singular observer. And what I’m doing then is modeling how an informed, singular observer would deal with a complex body of literature.

So it’s partly, in that role I’m not exactly providing facts and I’m not exactly teaching people how to think. I’m saying, “If you’re a psychologist, a research psychologist, and you want to engage with the literature, here is one way that you would do it.” And so then I’m a model and I’m a model of a way to be in a particular domain. Now that doesn’t mean that you have to emulate me from top to bottom, but at least you have a sense of what it’s like to be a person doing that. And that’s a different form of pedagogy.

Do you really want to win an argument, or do you want to find mutual ground and understanding? Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson feels that in most cases it's the latter. It might take some getting used to, he posits, as acquiescence by its very nature means admitting that you're wrong in some way. Jordan's latest book is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

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