The art of argument | Jordan Peterson
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Published on Jul 15, 2018


Do you really want to win an argument, or do you want to find mutual ground and understanding? Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson feels that in most cases it's the latter. It might take some getting used to, he posits, as acquiescence by its very nature means admitting that you're wrong in some way.


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Jordan Peterson: So how do you deal with situations where your words are likely to be used out of context, let’s say.

And that’s a situation I’ve encountered. Well, you see, you encounter a situation like that very frequently. Everyone does in their life. If you’re having a discussion with someone you live with, for example, so someone you have to be with for a long time – a lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband—sibling for that matter. You’re going to have contentious discussions about how to move forward and it’s very frequently the case that your words will be – that you’ll be straw-manned. Your words will be taken out of context.

The other person (and you too!) will try to win instead of trying to solve the problem. What you have to kind of decide is – well two things. The first thing is: you’re probably wrong in some important way. And you might think "Well, so what?" But no, it’s not so simple. Being wrong in some important way is like having a map that doesn’t correspond to the streets.

If you’re wrong in some important way, when you go to where you’re going you will get lost and you might end up in a neighborhood that you don’t want to visit! So it actually matters if you’re wrong.

And so now if you’re talking to someone who is acting in opposition to you, it’s possible that during your contentious discussion they will tell you something—about how you’re wrong—that’s accurate. Now you’re not going to be very happy about that, because like who wants to discover that they’re wrong?

But it’s better to figure out that your map is inaccurate than it is to get lost.

And so one of the things you have to remember when you’re discussing things with people, even if they’re out to defeat you, let’s say, is that there is some glimmering of the possibility that you could walk away with more knowledge than you walked in with.

And that’s worth – that can be worth paying quite a price for.

And so I’ve had the opportunity to engage in public debate of an exceptionally contentious nature for let’s say 18 months nonstop, fundamentally. And it’s been very stressful. But the upshot of that is that my arguments are in much better shape than they were, and—I shouldn’t say that. My THOUGHTS are much more refined than they were at the beginning of this process. It’s not my arguments are in better shape. That’s not the right way to think about it.

It’s that I’m clearer about what I know. I can articulate it better. And that’s all forged in the heat of conflict.

If you’re discussing a contentious issue with someone you love and that you have to live with and put up with, you want to listen to them. Because what you really want to do is establish a lasting peace, and you might even have to make their arguments for them. Maybe you’re more verbally fluent than your partner (which doesn’t mean, by the way, that you’re more right, it just means you can construct better arguments on the fly. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re more accurate).

You might have to help your partner formulate their arguments so that you can really get to grips with what it is that they’re trying to say. So that you can alter the way that you’re constructing your own narrative and your joint narrative, so that you’re not butting heads unnecessarily as you move forward through life.

It’s not a very good idea to win an argument with your wife. That isn’t what you want, because then you have a defeated partner. And a defeated partner is not happy. And a defeated partner is often out to reclaim the defeat.

And so as a strategy for moving forward with someone who you’re going to wake up beside 5,000 times it’s not a very advisable strategy. It’s better to listen, to flesh out the argument on both sides, and to see if you can come to a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement. And that’s the case in most encounters in life if you can manage that. But it’s easy to want to win.