Australians are very open about expressing opinions and feel entitled to do so.
Differences-of-opinion make us human. But they can morph into attacks, stalemates, retreat, politely-ignoring differences, or calls for civility. Public dialogue can then shrink to a few loud contentious or polarising shouts.
Arguments are crucial to democracy. Public life needs better, not fewer of them. After all, a clash of different points-of-view allow us to emerge with deeper insights and stronger solutions.
The point of public-life isn’t to resolve tensions, but to realise their origins and grow smarter working with those tensions. If we engage productively ‘above’ difference, we bridge all sorts of divides and equip people to argue usefully.
What makes a better argument?
That’s what US-based Better Arguments Project has explored deeply. Over 12 months their team worked with 75 advisers from a wide-range of professions over the US, to distil five key principles of better arguments. The team then put these principles in practice, hosting arguments in communities. Every event was distinct, but these five principles emerged as core to each.
1. Pay attention to context (the needs, culture, and context of the specific community).
Local, on-the-ground partners identify issues most relevant to their own community, in the Better Arguments Project. They intentionally structured the conversation to create shared knowledge and reflect local culture.
At a large community event awash with tension between long-time residents and newcomers in a changing city, a shared-sense of that city’s history was a key precursor.
2. Take winning off the table.
Why do we feel as humans that we always have to be right or win an argument?
When there’s much at stake, like council approval-vs-rejection of a new development, public tensions abound. But a better argument’s about presence and robust exchange of ideas – not about winning, losing, or converting the ‘other side.’ Free speech is vital but we need set boundaries so as to foster a more open and honest discussion.
Invite a broader-public into a shared-inquiry framed by open-ended questions which help participants reflect on the identity/ history/aspirations of their community and surface differing views.
With winning off the table, we preserve a space (to both speak and listen), create relationships that build connections, support better decision-making, and inspire civic-involvement.
3. Prioritise relationships and listen well.
There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth. Healthier arguments start out with human-connection, with participants prepared to listen, not just advance their own viewpoint and opinion.
Set the stage with ‘be-human-first’ conversations that bring forth personal-identity and shared-experiences. Ask “What makes you proud to be a member of your community”, or “Where do you feel at home in this city?” Open-ended questions humanise participants as individuals with identities, not just opposing viewpoints.
Better Arguments Project promotes listening by providing intentional reflection-questions. As arguments surface, pairs/tables are asked to step back and think about “What is something someone-else said that you appreciate? How has others’ thinking connected to/extended your own?” Active listening and perspective-taking can dramatically-enhance arguments, just as much as evidence and logic do.
4. Embrace vulnerability. Better arguments equal hard work and intrinsic risk in being there. Participants’ willingness to be open, honest, and vulnerable (as both speakers and listeners) is crucial. Brief ‘contracting’ to establish trust and set norms at the outset is a good idea.
Conversation between long-time residents and newcomers may be threaded with tricky issues of race/privilege/painful history. Better Arguments Project asked residents to silently finish the sentence, “When I think about how (their city) is changing, I feel _________ because ________.” Participants were asked to call out the feeling (angry, excited, conflicted, invisible) they’d written.
Given this powerful array of emotions,” the facilitator asked, “what do we need to feel secure and take risks in today’s conversation?” Some said patience, others, confidentiality.
5. Be open to transformation. With winning (or even resolution) off the table, we can change how we engage with difficult issues and with one another.
Events can conclude with an invite to reflect on shared-experiences with a simple but powerful prompt like: “I came in thinking ________; I’m leaving thinking _______.”
The Better Arguments Project also connects reflection to action by asking for a participant’s final statement, “So now I will….” Responses reveal how engaging consciously in a better argument can spark small but powerful changes in everyone. Some said, “I’ll introduce myself to my neighbours”; and even “I won’t be so afraid to discuss difficult topics.” Organisers can use “I will…” cards to identify promising-ideas and offer to fund/support those projects.
We have a responsibility to one another to show up in our community and argue usefully when we need to. Raw and painful at times, celebratory at others, healthier arguments allow us to evolve and expand our sense of community. Rather than driving us apart, they can bring us together.