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How To Argue – Lessons the mob can learn from children.

Updated: Sep 14, 2020


When my kids were little they would argue a lot. It was usually on a Saturday morning when I was enjoying a quiet cup of coffee and recovering from the work week. The little voices in the other room would grow louder, then strident, followed by the thumping of inbound feet and calls of “Daaaaaaad?”

They would burst into the room with competing claims of outrage and demands that I resolve the dispute in their favor. Initially, I would do my best to settle the problem fairly. But I quickly realized that my solution, no matter how fair, just, clever, or Solomon-like, only prolonged the problem. They would argue about the solution throughout the day, return with claims that it was unfair or demands that I enforce it in a certain way, or go bother their mother and start the cycle all over again.

Until one day I tried something different. Upon being presented with outraged visages and demands for justice, I said: “It sounds like you have a problem. Go sit on the couch together and figure it out. When you have a solution, come back and tell me what it is. Until then, you have to stay on the couch.”

It turns out that being trapped on the couch is an excellent incentive to solve the unsolvable problem. They tried many things to avoid the solution. My favorite was: “We’re not upset anymore.” To which I replied: “That’s great! What’s the solution?” When they had nothing, back to the couch they went. When they agreed just to drop it, that was good for a trip back to the couch as well. “If you bring me a problem, that means it’s important enough to solve, so go solve it.”

But the best was when my wife and I were eavesdropping on a couch discussion and one interrupted a litany of complaints from the other by saying “yeah, I know, but if we don’t figure this out we’ll be on the couch all day!” It was hard to laugh quietly enough so they couldn’t hear us.

The good news is that they became very good at sorting out their differences pretty quickly. We’d even hear one stop the other from coming in to complain: “Do you want to be on the couch? Let’s figure this out.”

And part of it was the parental review process. When they would present a solution that worked, I’d ask each one if they had actually agreed to the trade-off and then we’d go find their mom. With great pride and in their presence I’d tell my wife about the dispute and the solution so she could praise them as well. This quickly progressed to us eavesdropping as they resolved their own disputes without involving either of us, then telling them later how proud we were that they had resolved whatever the problem was on their own.

But the truly remarkable part of the process is they came up with solutions which neither me nor my wife would even have thought of. And they shared feelings with each other they would never have shared with us, because they were not seeking approval from an authority figure, they were working toward an agreement with a contemporary. One conversation ran like this: “Why are you so mad?” Answer: “I just wanted the kitchen to myself, so I got mad when you came in.” The reply: “Oh, I’ll just get my breakfast and go eat in the dining room.” In they came with a solution to the shouting match. She’ll have the kitchen and he’ll eat breakfast in the dining room. Not bad for a sister and brother ages 7 and 9.

They learned what many today seem to have missed.

The problem we see with the mobs today is it feels good to do what they do. And part of why it feels good, is because it’s mindless – there’s no thought. You’re mad so you just scream.

The simple truth is that not compromising is easy. You just do what you want. The respect of your friends and those who agree with you is also easy – they already like you and are disposed to forgive. Dismissing those who are not friends completes the short road to thinking you’ve succeeded.

But gaining the respect of those who disagree is hard. Consequently, your ability to lead or to gain results is revealed, not in how you obtain the agreement of the agreeable, but in how you obtain the willing participation of opponents.

What my kids learned by sitting on the couch was that the adversary is the situation; and the person you appear to be in conflict with is actually your partner in that situation.

The actual skill they developed was a keen sense of asking calibrated questions. It's true that when you ask calibrated questions you are leading your counterpart to your goals. But you are also leading them to examine and articulate what they want and why and how they can achieve it. You are demanding creativity of them, and therefore pushing them toward a collaborative solution. This requires your opponent to think but requires you to think as well. You also have to articulate what you want and why. And you also have to be creative in how to achieve a collaborative solution. It’s hard. Which is why most people don’t do it. Because screaming in the street is so very much easier. Just like screaming and running to Dad is easier.

It's hard because it takes diligent thought and ongoing dialogue, often with people you don’t like. And that’s where you should place your principal effort – in learning how to obtain the willing participation of your opponents. Crushing an opponent is easy, but then you have an enemy and the dispute continues. This is why dictators fail. Obtaining agreement is hard, but then you have an agreement and the dispute is gone. This is why freedom succeeds.

Reaching agreement requires assessing personalities, seeking insight into your opponent’s perspective, identifying interests, and exercising self-control. It also helps to develop the ability to give away what does not matter when you can, and the ability to ensure the attainment of what is important when it becomes critical (and the judgment to know the difference).

But if you’re not interested in doing the work, it means you’re not really interested in communicating or in moving forward. And you’re certainly not interested in solving the problem.

And that’s the real problem with name-calling and screaming in the street: It’s lazy.


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