Five Words to Avoid Any Argument

Clarity is the key that unlocks communication. Without it, we are no different than the early humans who spoke different languages, taking any gesture as a personal threat or an act of war.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

"Could you be more clear?" Not much to it at all. Rather than picking a fight or getting on the defensive, asking for clarification changes the tone of the whole conversation. 

With communication, there is what is said, what is meant, and what is understood. At least three levels of misunderstanding that must always be clarified to get anywhere. (Think of it as the telephone game, where three connections is the minimum default.) In On Dialogue, David Bohm writes:

"When one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood." 


English teachers would tell you to say, "Could you be clearer," which is why I use, "Could you be more clear," instead. It's a passive way to say the same thing; it doesn't imply they were unclear, to begin with, just that you as the listener, require more clarity. You are giving the opinionator a chance to think about what it is they are trying to say, logically, rather than emotionally. Knee-jerk reactions are often irrational and confusing, but maybe there is a valid point hiding underneath.

If a statement seems too broad and abstract, follow up by asking for context. And inversely, we, too, must also offer up to clarify, as to avoid confusion. (E.g., let me clarify; could I clarify?) As good as language is, it is still very much limited in its ability to communicate ideas, and often two people will argue over two separate subjects without realizing it. ("What were you talking about?"; "Oh, well, what were you talking about?")

How often do we have an argument and say, "Well, I had to argue with them because they made no sense." Exactly, they made no sense. We hate ambiguity, and arguments are often misguided attempts at clarity. Then, for the sake of efficiency, allow the person to elaborate, and if you have qualms or questions, expand on them, too.

I have had conversations with people I fundamentally disagreed with, contentious people, and with the tactic of clarity, I have been able to de-escalate them into productive chats. I may not agree with their conclusion, but I can agree with their reasoning. And it also provides me a chance to stand in the shoes of another human being, a chance I would not have gotten if I dismissed everything they said. Then I would only be aware of my own thoughts and the echo chamber around me — becoming broken from reality, spouting noise without sense.

But this is not magic; this is only as good as your reaction. If you are someone who likes to and wants to argue, then there is nothing for me to give you. (Unless this was rewritten as "Five Words to Win Any Argument.") But if you are someone who doesn't enjoy arguing, and feel it ruins your day and your general level of happiness, then temper yourself with some ancient advice.

Greek and Chinese Philosophy

To avoid arguments, Greek philosophers offer this advice: start conversations from the standpoint that everything is an opinion and we can never be certain of anything. If none of us are the purveyors of absolute truth, then all we can do is to explain to each other to the best of our abilities, what our opinions exactly are. Thus, Plato recommends that we all spend some time thinking and self-examining, so that we may form and know our opinions. Because Plato understood that we could argue, without having any actual opinions.

You may talk to someone who doesn't want to clarify, or when they do, it makes less sense than before — this drives us crazy. But the Confucian philosopher would say, life is messy and ambiguous, and so are we. The more we understand this, the more we can live a life of peace. But if you predicate your happiness on ultimate understanding or some subjective utopian order, you will never be happy. (You can never be confused if you never expect things to make sense.)

If their opinion is not fully formed or they need time to think about it, then let that be clear. What is there to argue about? It is what it is. When you try to control and force their thoughts, you are no longer their equal but rather their bully.

Arguing With Ourselves

Let's say you are diametrically opposed to racism, and your friend, Sheila, says something that appears racist. At the possibility of racism, you may argue with Sheila to get to what it is she really believes. And if it continues to be confusing, you will continue to argue. As strange as it sounds, even though we hate that Sheila may be racist, we will continue to argue until we think we know for certain. (Arguments are part interrogation.) Even if we find out Sheila is not racist, once we get upset, it's hard to calm down. (And we may continue to punish our friend, or keep treating her as if she were racist.) But if we ask for clarity, and Sheila states in no uncertain terms that she hates minorities, then what is there to argue? (Did you misunderstand and it's not that bad, or is worse than you thought? You won't know until it's clarified.) It's settled — now you know. So what's your reaction? That's within your control. You can walk away, come to an understanding, or escalate to attacks.

Arguments are about getting others to admit to their ultimate opinion. But is it their ultimate opinion? If you have a preconceived notion you are trying to get the other person to admit to, then whatever they say will have some degree of manipulation and your interpretation will be marred by bias. (E.g., "I have apprehensions about minorities because I don't know any," but what you hear is, "I hate minorities.") On both sides of an argument, people feel like, "There's something you obviously want me to say. Why don't you just tell me my opinion for me, because it seems like you're trying to get me to agree with you."

Rather than coercing or pushing out a response through duress (because you are upset), let them say what they mean without the impulse of emotion (from either side). That may still not be ultimate clarity, but it's much closer to it than the alternative.

Feelings Not Ideas

Confusion also arises between two people when they aren't stating practical ideas or facts, but rather, they are stating feelings and complaints. That's not an argument; that's just venting. You can prevent it from escalating by asking what it is they are feeling or talking about it for what it is: feelings. Perhaps you can take a moment to understand your own feelings over the subject. Once it is clear that it is about feelings, rather than opinions, all that you can do is listen and/ or express your own feelings. All the other person may want is to know they are heard and understood. But stating facts with reason hardly gets you anywhere with someone who comes with feelings and motivated reasoning. Listen, share your feelings, and/ or walk away. (Since logic does not always apply to feelings, it has become the realm of therapists. You might be tempted to go beyond listening and act as a therapist, but I do not recommend it.)

Clarity is the key that unlocks communication. Without it, we are no different than the early humans who spoke different languages, taking any gesture as a personal threat or an act of war.

Your Own Limitations

There is also the likelihood that they are stating something clearly, but you may have an inability to understand it. (For many reasons: lack of experience, context, knowledge base, framework of thinking, cultural differences, and so on.) Then you must also accept that it might be beyond your ability to understand. (Imagine a physicist explaining a scientific theory to someone who has trouble understanding basic arithmetic.) Yes, that happens. You are fallible. But perhaps they have given you some things to study.

After all, though there is what is said, meant, and understood, there is still the matter of absolute truth and that is a separate matter all together. Communication is description but it is not itself the object of description. (Description is not the described.) Knowing these limits can save us from trying to control what we cannot control so we may focus our energies on that which is withing our powers and responsibility. With your limits, be calm. With your power, be fair. With both, be kind.

 "The limits of my language means the limits of my world." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein


Even with these strategies, emotional reactions still tempt you. So how do you control your emotions and impulses so that you may be reasonable? The Stoics offer this advice: happiness is in knowing you cannot control others, you can only control yourself. All arguments are in part, arguments with ourselves. And in convincing others, we are partially trying to convince ourselves. We want to control the thoughts of others when we can't control our own thoughts.

But even a master cannot control his slave's thoughts and opinions. It's the most essential of all freedoms. Much of our anger comes from this primitive authoritarian want to control others (which might make you question the personalities of those who like to argue), and when we cannot, we get mad, disappointed, or hurt. That's not the ill of others; that's the ill of ourselves. Controlling these wants are what Stoics believed made you a virtuous person. The more we succumbed to the want to control others, the more we found glee in it, the more awful we were.

A Rational Heart

Then how we approach arguments says a lot about what kind of person we are. Being more reasonable and asking for clarity, then, does not only make things less combative, but it also makes you a better person. (Passionate people are not alway good and logical people are not always indifferent.) The virtuous person has a cool head and a rational heart.

With these simple techniques, I have calmed wild beasts — especially myself.

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