How to Argue Effectively: Harvard Negotiation Expert Shares Techniques for Arguing Effectively, Especially About Politics




Big Think uploaded the video on how to argue above at the end of last month, just in time for the United States midterm election. Where politics — or rather, politically inflected conflicts — have become more or less another national sport, everyone is always looking for an edge. But the expert who stars in the video, Harvard’s International Negotiation program head and Negotiating the Nonnegotiable author Daniel Shapiro, has an unusually capacious notion of what it means to win an argument. Our goal, as he conceives of it, is to have “more effective conversations,” and this entails understanding three keys to having those conversations: identity, appreciation, and affiliation.

“The moment your identity gets hooked in these conflicts,” Shapiro says, “all of a sudden your emotions become a hundred times more powerful” — and the debate at hand becomes a hundred times less tractable. You therefore must “know who you are and what you stand for,” the “values and beliefs” driving you to argue for your particular position.

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Ideally, you’ll also put some effort toward finding out the same things about your opponent, or rather your interlocutor. This is where appreciation comes in. Shapiro’s advice: “When you’re in the midst of the conflict, don’t talk. Take the first ten minutes to consciously listen to the other side. What’s the value behind their perspective? What’s the logic, the rationale?”

This allows you to assess the “emotional connection” between yourself and the other person. The trick is to “turn that other person from an adversary into a partner” by framing the conversation as not a conflict but as “facing a shared problem,” not least by asking their advice on how to solve it. You can learn more about Shapiro’s concept of “interest-based negotiation” in this other short Big Think video, and much more about his principles of argumentation in his talk at Google just above. In it, he breaks down the elements of the “tribes effect” that keeps us butting heads, including our attitudes about taboos and our tendency toward identity politics. And all of this is especially valuable viewing, of course, with the approach of that day of dinner-table argumentative bloodsport known as Thanksgiving.

Related content:

How to Win an Argument (at the U.S. Supreme Court, or Anywhere Else): A Primer by Litigator Neal Katyal

Literary Theorist Stanley Fish Offers a Free Course on Rhetoric, or the Power of Arguments

How to Argue With Kindness and Care: 4 Rules from Philosopher Daniel Dennett

A Guide to Logical Fallacies: The “Ad Hominem,” “Strawman” & Other Fallacies Explained in 2-Minute Videos

Read An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments: A Fun Primer on How to Strengthen, Not Weaken, Your Arguments

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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