I come from a family of sulky simmerers and tight-lipped seethers who would never air grievances, let alone enter into healthy debate about something. As a child, if I opened my mouth in protest I was met with “Don’t answer back”. I learned to keep my opinions to myself and look away embarrassed if anyone even near me expressed an opinion.
When I met my partner, a very keen arguer, at the age of 19, it was a bit of a culture shock for both of us. To his enduring sadness, every time he challenged me I would walk away or leave the room and sulk, instead of biting back. He comes from a family of cheerful feuders and nothing gives him greater pleasure than to take someone’s argument apart and reveal them to be, in his words, “simplistic” or “naive”. He would argue his way out of a paper bag. A friend will offer a popular, reasonable political viewpoint and, unable simply to agree, my kind, good, liberal other half will deconstruct it within minutes because he can’t help it – leaving us all convinced he’s a right-wing lunatic.
Free of my family’s influence, on the rare occasions I have ventured an alternative viewpoint, I’ve had it carefully annihilated and then had to leave the room blinking back tears while he comes after me with debate-lust in his eyes, asking me to cite my sources. We've never once had a satisfactory argument, the poor chap, despite the fact I'd love to be able to engage in his favourite hobby.
That’s why a new edition of a book by Jay Heinrichs, Thank You For Arguing: What Cicero, Shakespeare and the Simpsons Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion made my eyes light up. Finally I could learn some tricks that could not only help me win an argument but might even help my relationship, too. Rhetoric, Heinrichs says, “means more than grand oratory, more than ‘using words…to influence or persuade’ as Webster’s defines it. It teaches us to argue without anger.”
That. I want that.
Hilda Burke, integrative psychotherapist, couples counsellor and life coach, agrees that it can be a healthy thing. “Can fighting ever be constructive? Yes. When it is genuinely in the present,” but, she warns, “Be honest with yourself about how the things you argue about might be serving or not serving the relationship. Is it actually making things worse? If so, reflect on whether you want to be ‘right’ or you want to have a better relationship. Often ‘bickering’ is a sign of a power struggle in a relationship, with one party wanting to get the upper hand.” She adds: “For me, Aristotle wrote the most insightfully about anger – ‘Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.’ The same applies, by extension, to arguing.”
Heinrichs’ book is an easy-reading romp through rhetorical tools from a genuine enthusiast. He’s taught rhetoric to the Pentagon and NASA and cites the Simpsons and Eminem as his sources. The book runs through all the tricks, from offence to persuasion via manipulation, using examples from ancient Greece, Taylor Swift and Donald Trump.
Double arguments (or dissoi logoi as the Greeks called it) looks like something I could get my head around. A discipline practised by every ancient rhetoric student, it’s to do with being able to see both sides of every argument. Which is one of the key reasons I never argue, because I can always see both sides.
So I ask Heinrichs how best to argue when you are hard-wired to be reasonable. To my delight he tells me that I am one of the world’s greatest people (but perhaps he’s using one of his special tools to butter me up). Aristotle agreed, citing the middle road as the shortest to any decision. Being agreeable is more powerful than I imagined. Says Heinrichs: “You can use this as a bridge to make your point, you’re letting your partner score points and it makes you seem reasonable and flexible.”
Be honest with yourself about how arguing might be serving or not serving the relationship. Is it making things worse? Reflect on whether you want to be ‘right’ or want to have a better relationship.
When my partner asks when I’m going to empty all my various bags of crap in the porch and the truth stings, I’m not going to win by denying the crap (because I can’t) or by countering with a past occurrence of him spreading his crap across the worktops. This, says Heinrichs, is a forensic argument (whose chief topics are guilt and innocence) and on a hiding to nothing. “Talk about how you can work together to resolve the issue,” he advises, “think about what you want the outcome to be. Define your goals.” This is deliberative argument, one which deals with future outcomes.
Heinrichs' agreeability exercise seems worth a crack when you’re a bit like me. He says: “Talk with someone whose opinion you can’t stand. Use aggressive interest to ask him to (a) define every term, (b) provide details – statistics and trends are best, and (c) give sources for his information.”
So I tried this with a friend who was staying. I like this friend very much but her and my views on a gender-based issue differ ever so slightly in a way I can’t be bothered to go into here. Instead of going “Hmmm” like I usually would when someone I like says something I don’t like, I asked her to explain exactly what she meant by her statement. She did and started to falter. I then reframed her argument (put it in an entirely different court) and suggested that the problem was about something else entirely. She capitulated. My dogged, scientific friend looked at me and said, “You’re right. I need to think about this differently.” I had won an argument! I passed the rest of the evening on a complete high.
When I found myself heading down a wormhole the following weekend with another friend (we were talking about what creativity is and I started saying something about poetry), I remembered the book. The friend presented an argument that I couldn’t really find fault with. But instead of backing down, I thought, “Hell. I am going to win this,” so I repeatedly asked her to define her terms. Not only did this buy me time, it made her question her own definitions and made me look clever in the process. Turns out arguing can be a bit addictive and I start to understand a bit of my partner’s bloodlust.
Heinrichs also talks about choosing your moments, citing Trump deciding to run for president at the right time to win as an example. The ancients called it kairos. It’s the idea that the uncertain audience can be as vulnerable as the half-persuaded one. He suggests speaking late in a meeting “in the tone of the reluctant conclusion (implying that sheer logic, not personal interest compels you). You will seem like a judge instead of an advocate.” To me, he recalls the time his wife completely transformed their holiday plans from his idea of a beachside hammock to her idea of a Cotswolds garden tour by biding her time and swooping in for the kill at the last minute. Now that’s my kind of arguing.
A few days later, my other half is in the middle of telling me how I “always” do something in retaliation to my oldest child’s specific behaviour. My instinct is to immediately remind him how he always does something ELSE annoying but I stop myself. What are we actually trying to achieve here? The goal is for the eldest child to change her behaviour in a specific situation, not which of us reacts in the wrong way. I immediately concede. Then, on Heinrichs’ advice, I think about what’s advantageous and I switch to a deliberative stance. How can we change OUR behaviour? I try a bit of “yes and” (that tried and tested improv technique) to suggest how his behaviour can improve, too. It’s a joint thing. We’re in this together! Our argument is less fractious and we actually come to a decent conclusion without me feeling picked on.
I might not be invited to the Oval Office any time soon but, in the course of learning some of Heinrichs’ neat rhetorical tricks, I think I’ve learned to redefine what an argument is and my role within one. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I'm off to reframe the idea of where we go on holiday next year.