How to Argue with a Friend

“Disagreement is critical to the well-being of our nation. But we must carry on our arguments with the realization that those with whom we disagree are not our enemies; rather, they are our colleagues in a great enterprise. When we respect each other enough to respond carefully to argument, we are filling roles necessary in a republic.”—Judge Thomas B. Griffith, “The Work of Civility.”

Human beings are really good at fighting with enemies. We’ve been doing it for millions of years, so the genes for fierce intraspecies competition are pretty well established in the pool. We are also pretty good at making friends, and mostly for the same reasons — cooperation with members of our own species has long been key to both survival and personal fulfillment.

However, we are lousy at arguing with our friends. Conflict of any kind can activate our limbic defenses and throw us into a “fight or flight” pattern where we do one of two things: we either shut down or don’t say what we think in order to preserve a friendship, or we keep fighting until we have turned the friend into an enemy whom we can destroy.

But, there is actually another option—and it is the option that DC Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith presented at a recent talk at my alma mater. We can realize “that those with whom we disagree are not our enemies, [but] our colleagues in a great enterprise.” We can love and respect people and disagree with them at the same time. We can argue as friends.

Arguing as friends requires us to suppress the frightened, vulnerable, scurrying-reptile parts of our brains that see challenges and opposition as threats to our existence. Yet, it can be done. People actually do it every day and have wonderful, productive political discussions where nobody agrees and everybody gets along. It just takes work.

Here are a few tips for making it happen:

  • Understand people disagree with us because they see the world through different filters and different core assumptions and not because they are crazy, stupid, or evil. We are remarkably bad at this. Our own opinions seem so right to us that we cannot imagine another person not seeing things our way unless they are either misinformed or fundamentally flawed. In the abstract, we acknowledge that human diversity is a good thing, but with the concrete issues that we care about the most, we rarely see diversity as a strength.
  • Care more about the human relationship than the argument: Most people don’t mind being disagreed with, at least in theory, but we resent being belittled, insulted, and trivialized. Unfortunately, however, we are wired to perceive any challenge to our beliefs as a challenge to our legitimacy as a human being. The only way around this is to make it clear from the outset that you respect and value somebody as a friend more than you want to be right. Sometimes this can be done with tone and mannerisms; other times it can be done with explicit statements like, “I respect and value you and hope that we can talk about where we disagree without jeopardizing our friendship.” Sometimes, saying what you mean can be powerful.
  • Ban sarcasm. Sarcasm is a defense mechanism for dealing with enemies. Its primary function is to assert your opinion at the same time that you assert your moral and intellectual superiority. It serves no purpose in arguments with friends.
  • Understand where you really disagree. Most people do most of their arguing with themselves, which is to say that we create a mental image of the other person’s position and spend most of our time responding to it rather than to what the other person is actually saying. But, treating a person you disagree with as a friend means actually understanding what they are saying and where their opinion disagrees with your opinion. Once you figure this out, the resulting discussion can really be quite pleasant. I will repeat here my golden rule for arguing: never disagree with a position until you can paraphrase that position back to the person who holds it in such a way that they say, “yes, that is exactly what I meant.” It’s called “active listening,” and it’s what friends do.
  • Recognize your own biases. We all have them. We are all situated in a context, we all have interests, and we all have biases that affect how we structure arguments and admit evidence. We can’t ever become unbiased (there is no not having a perspective), but we can try to recognize what our biases are and compensate for them when we are talking to other people whose biases may be very different.
  • Forgive. Nobody ever gets this stuff right all the time. We are very attached to our political opinions, and we often get carried away defending our beliefs. We are also mammals, which means that we are bundles of emotion and nervous energy always on the lookout for potential threats to our well being. We will overreact. We will say things that we don’t mean. We will take things personally. We will say things personal. If we are only friends with someone until they, or we, mess up once, we are going to end our lives with very few friends.

In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln was staring straight ahead at the dissolution of the Republic. He lived in a time when partisanship, nastiness, and political divisions made our divided country today seem like the last five minutes of an episode of the Waltons.

This is what he said:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The better angels are there somewhere. We all have access them. And the health of our republic depends on our finding them once again.