“You’ve always been argumentative,” Paddy accused me before I even sat down with my coffee.
Not being able to pass up an opening like that, I challenged, “What the hell do you mean I’m argumentative?”
“C’mon,” Paddy said defensively, as my attempt at humour sailed over his head, “you know you’ve always loved a good argument. I just want to talk about it”
“I have been known to take a stand now and then,” I acknowledged. “What specifically do you want to talk about?”
“Well,” Paddy said, “do you think there’s a right way to, as you put it, take a stand?”
“I certainly do,” I assured him.
“OK,” Paddy went on, “for starters, how do you decide whether or not you should argue...sorry ... whether or not you should take a stand?”
“Unless you’re a hermit, a wimp, or have no principles whatsoever,” I responded, “there will be times when you will know that you should take a stand.”
“Give me a couple of examples,” Paddy challenged.
“When you’re being treated unfairly, when someone relentlessly takes a patently unreasonable position, or when you see people who can’t defend themselves being taken advantage of,” I suggested.
“But,” Paddy conceded, “doesn’t taking a stand usually end up in an argument.”
“Quite often,” I admitted.
“OK,” Paddy continued, “what’s the main thing to remember when your stand looks like it’s going to become an argument?”
“The first thing I remind myself is to not demean the other person,” I said, “and then that it’s important to control the conversation.”
“How do you do that?” Paddy asked.
“First you have to recognize when an argument is coming.” I told him. “Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice can all signal the beginning of an argument. And when people say they agree ‘in principle’ the argument is already underway.”
“I suppose,” Paddy put in, “that ‘yes, but…’ is another argument harbinger.”
“It certainly is,” I agreed. “And when you recognize one of these signals the most effective word in your vocabulary will be why.”
“Why?” Paddy asked; and I don’t think he was being facetious.
“Starting a sentence with the word why forces you to ask a question,” I pointed out. “Such as: Why do you say that? Why do you feel that way? Why are you getting angry? Asking questions in a conversational tone of voice will often defuse a potentially explosive situation.”
“It’s also a marvellous way to learn something,” Paddy sagely observed.
“It is,” I agreed and paused to take a sip of coffee. When Paddy just silently sipped his I went on. “It’s important to remember during arguments that people aren’t so much against you as they are for themselves.”
Paddy chose to ignore my point and instead impatiently asked, “So, how do you win an argument?”
“The best way to win an argument is to be right,” I said. “But how you demonstrate that you’re right is critical. You have to know what you’re talking about; and more importantly, you have to remain in control of yourself.”
“I’ve heard it said,” Paddy opined, “that the best way to prove that a stick is crooked is to place a straight stick beside it.”
“Undoubtedly,” I agreed, “but it isn’t always that easy. You’ll need relevant, logical, easily understood, convincing illustrations and examples to back up your points. Everybody doesn’t always think the same way, so everybody isn’t going to be swayed by the same logic, which is why you really have to know what you’re talking about.”
“You also mentioned keeping control of yourself. Can’t that be pretty hard?” he asked.
Indeed,” I concurred. “The best way to keep control of yourself is to deal with the other person as you would with your best friend; which means listening carefully, asking questions rather than making statements, and avoiding being prematurely judgmental.”
Paddy again pondered silently as I sipped some coffee, so I continued my discourse. “Arguments are less likely to become heated if the issue is kept separate from the people. You have to separate what’s being said from what you think about the person who’s saying it. And if the other person starts throwing personal barbs, you have to ignore them.”
“Which brings me back to controlling yourself,” Paddy said. “How do you tell the difference between having the courage of your convictions and simply being stubborn or prejudiced?”
“There are signals that tip you off,” I explained. “The first is when you feel anger rising. The next is when you raise your voice. When either of these happens you have to get yourself back under control, or find some way to postpone the discussion until you do. Hard arguments require soft words.”
“Aren’t there times when taking a stand is futile?” was Paddy’s next question.
“Of course,” I agreed. “The most obvious is when you’re wrong. Everyone has the right to an opinion, but no one has the right to be wrong; even though ignorance produces some very interesting arguments. You should also avoid arguing with people who are angry. Trying to change people’s viewpoints when they’re all fussed about something will usually just result in their hardening their positions.”
“What else?” Paddy asked as he drained his cup, clearly getting ready to leave.
“Although it takes two people to start an argument,” I said, “it only takes one to end it. A good indication that it’s time to end an argument is when it becomes long and drawn out, which usually indicates that neither side is right. If you realize you’re wrong, be willing to quickly concede. Should the other person give in, be gracious and easy to live with.”
“So,” Paddy observed as he pushed back his chair, “there is a right way to take a stand.”
“Yes,” I said. “But as Dale Carnegie observed, the only sure way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.”
“But you argued a lot in your day,” Paddy again accused me.
“Yes,” I admitted. “But, believe it or not, I avoided more than I engaged in.”
I think Paddy chose not to believe it. As he walked away he muttered something that sounded like, “Humph!”