Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is It Always Wrong to Argue?

Peter Bregman recommends that we never argue. By that he means, fighting is never productive. Link here.

I have a problem with the word “never,” here. While it is generally a bad idea to fight, making the principle into a moral absolute is not the best guideline either.

If Bregman means that, in most human relationships, it is not helpful to yell, scream, or throw things, then clearly he is right.

If he means that it is better to negotiate than to argue, I also think he is correct. When relationship experts tell you that you can have constructive fights or that fighting can yield a positive benefit, they are blowing smoke.

You might feel momentarily better for letting off steam, but traumatizing your significant other and making yourself look foolish will never improve your relationship. It will merely put you in the position where you will be spending a good deal of time doing damage control and relationship repair.

Negotiation is good, but not all the time. Trying to conciliate an intractable enemy can easily make you an appeaser.

To complicate things further, arguing and fighting are not exactly the same thing. An argument can certainly involve an angry presentation of a point of view, but the dictionary tells us that the word “argument” also refers to a presentation of the reasons why you have drawn a certain conclusion.

You can argue your case without quarreling and without evincing any anger. You can engage in a rational argument without arriving at the situation that Bregman wants us all to avoid: a knock-down, drag-out shouting match.

Rather than trying to find our way through a thicket of theory, let’s examine the experience that provoked Bregman’s conclusion.

One day Bregman was driving out of the city; his car contained two children and five adults. He decided to stop off for a few minutes to pick up some take out.

All in all, a fairly typical New York scene.

As he was picking up the food, his daughter came running into the restaurant to inform him that his car was being ticketed. He immediately ran out to find a traffic officer writing him a ticket for stopping in a bus lane.

New York City is filled with signs that warn against stopping, standing, or parking in a bus lane. Bregman does not mention it, but the fine is $115.00.

Sorely offended by this overly legalistic interpretation of traffic law, Bregman objected, strongly and vociferously. He thought that he should have been afforded the opportunity to move his car. And it did not look to him that the bus stop extended as far as the traffic officer thought.

The officer tried to explain that once she started writing the ticket, she could not just stop.

Bregman became flustered and angry. He started waving his arms. To no avail.

He received the ticket and noted to himself that arguing was not a very useful tactic. Getting angry at people who are doing nothing more than their job does not persuade them to give you a break. It causes them to dig in their heels and become intransigent.

It has certainly happened that a citizen has talked a police officer out of giving him a ticket, whether for parking or for speeding or even for running a stop sign. But, there are right and wrong ways to address the problem. Turning the conversation into an angry quarrel will guarantee you a ticket… and sometimes more.

If you want to be persuasive, you should be contrite, respectful, and calm. The minute you become querulous you will lose the argument.

Why did Bregman offer an inappropriate display of emotion over a parking ticket?

One senses that on this family trip to the country, he was the man in charge, the alpha male. Receiving a ticket threatened his position atop the family status hierarchy.

Given this threat, he felt a need to turn a simple transaction into a drama… for wounded pride and for show.

As it happened, the traffic officer did not take the bait. She did not argue with him. She simply instructed him on the facts of the situation. He was trying to personalize it; she was staying within the bounds of her job.

She remained calm and composed; he got lathered up.

Since she did not take the bait, she effectively calmed the troubled waters. She refused to take it personally, and, after a time, Bregman could not reasonably consider it either a personal affront or an attack on his manly pride.

Giving someone a traffic ticket is not an insult or offense. If you respond as though it is, you have descended a few notches and made yourself the issue. At that point  you are not presenting a reasoned argument; you are dramatizing a personal need and creating a conflict.

The worse the argument, the less likely it is that common ground can be found.

Did Bregman learn his lesson? Not exactly. He tells us that he was so convinced that his cause was just that he decided to dispute the ticket in court.

He chose to do so even after he discovered that if he had simply paid the fine, New York City, in its generosity, would have been willing to discount it by 25%.

So, Bregman went to court, lost the case, and paid the fine in full. As the saying goes: old habits die hard!

Of course, asking a judge to adjudicate a dispute is really not the same as arguing with a traffic officer. If Bregman thinks that this incident proves that he is argumentative, he should correct his thinking.

What happens then when someone really insults or offends you? How should you act when someone threatens your pride, and not just, as happened with Bregman, your false pride?

Bregman recommends conciliation, but he also adds that it is not good to allow people to bully you. I am sure he would agree that a traffic officer who is giving you a ticket for a violation is not bullying you.

One day, Bregman was waiting in long line when a man cut in front of him. When Bregman called him out on it, the man reacted as though he had already been on the line-- everyone knew he had not-- and provoked an argument.

Thinking that his pride was being attacked, Bregman got into an argument. A quarrel ensued. Just as it began to escalate, a woman who was also waiting on line pointed out to the offending male that he had just disrespected everyone who had been waiting patiently.

Then, she stepped ahead of him. Everyone who was standing behind her followed suit and the boor found himself in his proper place, at the back of the line.

Of course, this situation is not really analogous to what happened with the traffic ticket. Objectively rude behavior is not at all the same as professional conduct that may be a little too legalistic.

So, it’s bad to make a scene out of nothing. It’s bad to allow a bully to push you around. And, it’s bad to quarrel.

In all cases, your first goal should be to find a middle ground between appeasement and all-out war.

At the same time, expressing anger is not always wrong. Aristotle recommended that it be done at the right time in the right place to the right person under the right circumstances.

There are right and wrong ways to express anger. Getting angry with a traffic officer doing her job makes you look like a chump. Getting angry with a man who cuts in front of you on a long line makes you look righteous.

And yet, if your expression does not convince the man to move to the back of the line, it has not been successful.

The right expression of anger, the expression that is appropriate to the situation, will cause the other person to recognize the error of his ways and to back off. It will draw attention to his bad behavior, not to your emotion.

If it does not work, then try something else.

Both of the incidents Bregman reported are singular events involving strangers. It is very, very rarely useful to get angry with someone you do not know, have never met, and are never likely to see again.

If, however, you are involved in a relationship with someone who is abusive or offensive or disrespectful, then a more forceful expression of anger, even an argument, may be useful.

Keep in mind, if the disrespect is not a unique occurrence, then it is part of your mode of relating. If it is one of your relationship rituals, then you have probably been accepting it, even if by ignoring it.

If the disrespect has gotten to the point where you are no longer willing to tolerate it, then perhaps your anger will be necessary as a way to show clearly and unambiguously that you have changed your attitude, and have chosen to take personally something that is, effectively, personal.


Anonymous said...

I think your distilled that into a cogent and useful point.

From my perspective of arguing, sometimes vociferously, points of engineering and process in the course of my job, I'd like to offer a further point:

Leave a path open for the other side to back down honorably and without loss of face.

I've had success enlisting the other guy/gal into helping me. "Awwww, I don't want to get a ticket in front of my kids, can you help me?"

Guy cuts in front of you in line (I've never had this happen, I'm kinda imposing) but: "You can cut in front of me, but I don't think the rest of the guys in back of me will be so happy...."

You don't have to dominate the other person, just quietly, humorously, get your way.

If it a clear and unavoidable insult, intended as an insult, that cannot be laughed off: fight, and don't fight fair.


Anonymous said...

Now I realize, having posted the above, that my viewpoint reflects my engineering background and bent.

I don't get mad at processors, code, or machines, and as soon as you get frustrated, you'll never find the elusive key to "fixing it".

Hmmmm, applying that viewpoint and strategy to humans and human situations is highly successful, but probably some kind of sociopathology....

I never really considered that before. No wonder I drive my wife mad occasionally.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Gray. You make a couple of points that deserve emphasis.

If you are trying to talk a police officer out of a ticket, it is essential to leave the other side a way to back down without losing face.

This is the most essential part of the process.

Appealing to him as a fellow parent by saying that you do not want to get a ticket in front of the kids sounds great to me.

As does the remark about the other people on the line. I find the remark inspired because it avoids the possible conflict between you and the man who is cutting in, but tells him that he is not just cutting in front of you, but is looking bad in front of a whole bunch of people.

Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Arguing

Somewhere it is written, "Be slow to anger." Elsewhere in that same Somewhere it is written, "Take your discussion to your neighbor."

I guess it all depends upon how you define 'argue'. If 'discussion' is 'argument' whenever the discussion involves {HORROR!} 'disagreement', then I'd say someone is trying to define the 'battlespace' to their own purposes. And, if the 'shoe', i.e., political power, is on the other 'foot', e.g., 'conservative', then I'm not surprised at this rhetorical tactic.

During the Bush administration, to 'argue' was consider the height of 'patriotism'. NOW....three guesses....


P.S. On a different note....

I'm watching Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Joe vs. the Volcano and during the 'marriage ceremony', before the 'leap of faith' in to the volcano....

....I'm interested in a question about 'marriage'.

WHY is it that the concept of 'marriage' is such a universal concept? Why is it that darn near EVERY culture from tribal to the vaunted 'Western Civilization'. Albeit that the latter is attempting to tear down the concept.....