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How to argue, intelligently

It's the Old Brain vs. the New Brain

In an increasingly polarized world, arguing seems to be a favourite pastime. Trolls (those delightful online creatures who start quarrels and sow discord for fun) treat the internet like a no-holds-barred Wild West. Others get lost in detailed rants and forget to listen — or forget what they were arguing about in the first place.

However, thanks to disciplines like social and behavioural sciences and neuroscience, we can learn to argue better. In fact, says author Maria Popova, we can learn to argue “not to conquer but to come at truth; not to be right at all costs, but to understand and advance the collective understanding.”

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Farmers in a Canola Field

Which is supposed to be the point.

This is your brain on anger

As a farmer, making up less than two per cent of the population, you have likely found yourself in situations where you have needed to defend how you practice your profession. You’ve had to debunk ingrained myths, or you’ve had to inform the misinformed. Unfortunately, these conversations can devolve into arguments.

There’s a scientific explanation for what happens next.

When an argument triggers anger, the amygdala, an area deep inside your Old Brain (the reptilian brain from way back before we could even speak, let alone argue) switches on the fight-or-flight reaction. Once your brain determines that there’s no need for a physical response, cortisol, the stress hormone, and adrenaline build up, both of which hijack the New Brain (the more advanced, reasoning mammalian brain) which wants to reflect and determine the best way to communicate for validation and understanding.

(Tip: When you finish reading this column, try the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution’s “Monkey vs. Lizard” quiz to find out what part of your brain you predominantly argue with.)

As stress levels spiral out of control and the rational front cortex of the brain shuts down, it’s more difficult to think and act rationally — and less likely your opponent will either, since we instinctively mirror certain behaviours (e.g. crossed arms, raised voice).

How to calm the lizard

Our default approach to winning an argument is to present our listeners with facts. However, the efficiently speedy and analytical processes our brains use to organize and process information taps into the more emotional, rather than the logical, functions of the mind. Emotional cues carry more weight, but generally tip the process towards less rational responses.

Therefore, says Seth Godin, marketing guru, “Every time you assume that others will be swayed by your logical argument, you’ve most likely made a significant, irrational mistake.”

When you present new information that conflicts with your opponent’s pre-existing worldviews, it can create misunderstanding or mistrust, leading to a defensive stance that in turn can lead to an argument.

So, what’s a monkey to do?

To engage the new, rational part of the brain and calm the old, primal part of the brain, take deep, slow breaths to lower cortisol levels and reverse the fight-or-flight response.

Respond rather than react: First, re-express your opponent’s position clearly and fairly. Then, list points of agreement and highlight anything you have learned from your opponent. “Only then,” says philosopher Daniel Dennett, “are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”

Weed out your emotions: If you let your emotions get the better of you, you’re providing fuel for your opponent to get the upper hand. Emotions are the tiny crack through which someone can wedge themselves just enough that eventually they’ll be able to shove that door wide open — and blow your emotionally charged response right out of the water. Instead, remain composed, calmly present your side, and provide points as to why your opponent is incorrect. Another emotional tactic: smile, laugh or crack a joke to defuse a tense situation.

Use tact and respect: The point of an argument is to resolve an issue and move on, not to incite a schoolyard brawl. The goal shouldn’t be to hurl insults, but rather to find common ground on which you can build a mutually better way forward.

Learn to listen: As the old saying goes, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Present your point, then stop and listen to your opponent’s point of view. Ask questions to help you better understand where they’re coming from. Not only do good questions help you reach an understanding and broaden your point of view, they’ll force your opponent to assess and consolidate their thoughts and opinions.

Start with small wins: Instead of jumping right to the end of your argument, start with statements you know your listener will agree with and use these to build a foundation for further agreement.

Don’t argue, EGRIP instead (Psychologist Gleb Tsipursky’s Emotions, Goals, Rapport, Information, Positive Reinforcement method). It works as follows: First, use your empathy skills (vital to promoting trust) to understand your opponent’s emotions and determine what emotional blocks are influencing their arguments. Next, create an environment of “effective knowledge sharing by establishing shared goals.” Third, build rapport by using the findings from your empathetic listening session to echo their emotions, demonstrating that you understand how they feel. Now you can share the facts that you held back in the beginning. Finally, associate positive emotions with any change of heart they may have. Positive reinforcement is a powerful way to encourage people to change deeply held beliefs.

“The key,” Tsipursky says, “is to show your conversation partner, without arousing a defensive or aggressive response, how their current truth denialism will lead to them undermining in the long term the shared goals we established earlier.”

Objection and rejection to what you say will occur, but how you react is key to how your messages will spread and resonate. Remember that the Old Brain is boss: when addressing objections, consider that your audience’s Old Brain objects because it’s afraid to make a decision that will put itself at physical risk. Strategic arguing can help engage each other on a more constructive level.

Eventually, you and your opponent may come to see eye-to-eye. In some cases, you can work towards understanding by agreeing to disagree, acknowledging that the other person has valid concerns. In the end, the goal should be to transform your opponent into a more receptive audience to further the discussion and outcomes in the best interests of Canada’s agriculture industry.

April Stewart is a sixth-generation dairy farmer in Quebec, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and principal of Alba PR, whose latest project is The Farmer’s Survival Guide.

About the author


April M. Stewart is the owner of Alba PR, a brain-to-brain communication design firm, and the creator of “The Farmer’s Survival Guide: How to Connect With 21st Century Consumers,” a blog and workshops which look at communication impact boosters. She is also a sixth-generation Quebec dairy farmer, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and a member of the Canadian Agri-Business Education Foundation board. You can find her on Twitter under @FarmersSurvival.

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