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Whenever I argue, people always seem to take it very personally. I see it more as problem solving, where the problem is whatever is being argued (99.9% of the time, the disputed premise is purely hypothetical).

The progression usually goes like so:

  • Person and I find a thought we have dispute about.

  • We go back and forth asking questions.

  • Eventually, either we come to an agreement somewhere in the middle, or the other person takes it very personally, and get frustrated.

With my good friends, we can argue and debate for up to 15 minutes at a time before coming to a middle ground, and invariably, we always do.

With people who I know less well, and aren't much for debate, usually they see it as a personal attack. I'm very good at socializing with new people, and especially in a 1 on 1 environment. From my point of view, they let their guard down very quickly. However, when I start to poke and prod at something they say, no matter how genuine my curiosity is, they seem to treat it as some sort of betrayal of trust.

To solve this, I would like to learn how to argue impersonally, such that people don't feel like i'm arguing them, but I'm arguing the premise. How do I achieve this?

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    Does this happen with certain subjects more than others? I'm thinking of a past question we had, about playing devil's advocate, but that was about politics in particular. Also, could you explain a little what the context is where you end up arguing with people you don't know very well? I see you tagged this "verbal communication", does that mean this usually happens face-to-face (rather than online)? – Em C Aug 21 at 15:13
  • @Emc As I said, it happens usually with hypothetical scenarios, on very rare occasions, it may happen with non-hypotheticals, the big (non-hypothetical) example that comes to mind is when I told a person that The current POTUS doesn't set the governmental budget, that the US Congress does.They got very angry when I said this. I scratch that up to politics though. I'll try to add context in a minute. And yes, these sorts of things don't usually happen online (Or, at least, not any instances that I care about) – tuskiomi Aug 21 at 15:21
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    Ok, thanks. Hypothetical could still mean any sort of topic ("what if people could fly" to "what if we made a law against some thing"), that's why I was curious if it seemed to make a difference :) – Em C Aug 21 at 15:31
  • @EmC It's never what if, it's always a ranking of some sort EG: flavors of ice cream, best super powers, best coding methods, worst historical figures, stuff like that. – tuskiomi Aug 21 at 15:34
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    Is it possible to get an example argument/discussion where the other person felt it was a personal attack? The description of how those discussions progress is too sanitized and lacking in detail to give an impression of what your approach is like, and since your approach is apparently at issue that's a critical thing to miss. – Upper_Case Aug 21 at 21:28
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I have a good friend with whom I disagree about a lot of things and with whom I often have spirited debates. Because we are so close, I don't ever get angry with him, but I do sometimes get frustrated.

My friend is a white man who has been middle class his whole life. I'm a Latina woman who went through a period of serious poverty. When we debate things like reproductive rights, immigration policy, or the social safety net, he is able to approach those things from a purely academic point of view; he has never experienced discrimination based on race or gender and he has never had to rely on government programs. These things are abstract concepts to him, so he is able to argue about them from a cool, detached place. I, on the other hand, have experienced these things and they trigger an emotional response in me. When I debate these things, my reasoning remains strong and clear, but I do get a bit emotional. I don't think that's a bad thing; I think feelings are a big part of the human experience and, if certain policies or positions cause a group of people to be traumatized or to feel humiliated and degraded, we should pay attention to that.

I don't claim to know your demographics, OP, and I don't know what specific topics are triggering this emotional response in people. What I'm saying is this: if someone has an emotional response to something you're saying, it means you've hit on something that is important to them. It may be a subject that you view as merely academic or hypothetical, but it is clearly personal and meaningful to the other person.

I don't think your goal should be impersonal debates no matter what. Some subjects ARE personal. I think you should try to learn from these moments. Here's what I would say, what I often wish my friend would say:

I'm sorry if I've said something to upset you. You clearly feel very strongly about this. Are you comfortable telling me why?

This gives the other person the opportunity to evaluate their own responses without feeling judged or condescended to. I believe one of four things will happen:

  • They will deny being emotional. This is a conversational roadblock and the best thing to do here is drop the subject
  • They will realize that they've allowed themselves to become hyped up over a debate about ice cream flavors. This happens too, people get swept up in defending their opinions. Your earnestness will deflate their rage bubble and they will almost certainly calm down and return to a more relaxed conversational style
  • They will say that they're not comfortable talking about it. In this case, the best thing is to agree to disagree and drop the subject.
  • They will open up to you about why they've become emotional over this topic. This is an opportunity for you to learn something from a point of view other than your own. It doesn't mean that you will necessarily end up agreeing with them, but you will gain a richer understanding of the subject.

    Emotional is not the opposite of rational. People can get emotional about beliefs that they hold for very rational reasons. An emotional response shouldn't derail a debate, it should inform and enlarge it.

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    For the sake of this question, let's consider 'argument' in a broader context, and include milder forms such as negotiation and debate.

    How do I argue in an impersonal manner?

    The oversimplified, yet most broadly applicable, rule is don't use any form of ad hominem. This keeps the interaction, technically, on the issue and facts.

    However, you will very often find people have emotional investments in the positions they take, even one where there's little objective reason to do so. Software Developers are particularly prone to this (I encounter this at least once a week) so let's use that as a nice, safe example.

    The best way I found to 'argue' in these situations is to not really argue. Instead, I plot a series of leading or probing questions to guide (fine, manipulate :) the other person to a position closer to mine.

    Me: So, that's done in Trendy But Unnecessarily Complicated Framework. Cool. Do you have any guidance on how we can connect from our Boring But Everybody Knows It Just Works stack?

    Them: Yeah, ok, I guess we can come up with something. Can you do Obscure Format I Read About On A Blog?

    Me: Oh no, but we already support Widely Used And Proven Format, do you think that might be best for everyone?

    Them: Ok, we'll talk and get back to you.

    Basically, I'm asking if they agree conceptually that simple and common is 'better' without going into the emotional wilds of why they made a particular choice or why our choice is just better.

    With people who I know less well...argue impersonally...don't feel like i'm arguing them, but I'm arguing the premise.

    Unfortunately, this is very, very, very difficult. To the point where I would say just don't try unless you actually want a real argument. There are many things people get fixated on that are purely emotional investments and even the slightest contradiction, despite ample evidence, causes the fight or flight mechanism to kick in.

    Instead, I use it as a learning (or entertainment) opportunity. You can still use probing and leading questions, just be careful to not use confrontational or challenging questions.

    For example, I look forward to meeting a true Flat Earther. I know enough about the topic to be engaging but I'm really interested in their thought pattern and reasoning progression. I hold no expectation of changing their mind.

    Good question: Can you explain the mechanics of constant acceleration?

    Bad question: How do you reconcile your acceleration theory with centuries of empirical evidence other then a global conspiracy?

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    I found it interesting that in your discussion scenario, you mentioned only two possible outcomes. Either you meet somewhere "in the middle" or the other person is frustrated.

    What happens when you are wrong? Your post, and the fact that people are frustrated with the way you interact, suggests that you may have difficulty conceding a point. Being surrounded by engineers, many of them quite brilliant, I know firsthand how irritating it can be to interact with someone who always thinks he is right. It feels dismissive and demeaning and after a while I don't even want to be around that person.

    Nobody is right all the time. No matter how highly you think of your own intellect. But as a person with a 160 IQ, I know how difficult it is to give up arguing when you believe you are smarter than the person you are arguing with.

    Here's something that helped me. Take a step back. Decide that having a mutually respectful conversation is more important than winning or being right. Then make a point of allowing yourself to be persuaded occasionally. Make an effort to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Acknowledge the truth of what they are saying. You don't have to lie and say they are right when they are not, but unless you absolutely know for a fact that they are wrong at least acknowledge the possibility that they are right.

    If they say "a binky is something a rabbit does" and you want to say "no it isn't, it's like a pacifier" then you are not considering their words, only your own.

    I'm sure everyone knows someone who you can absolutely rely upon to disagree with any fact that you care to recite. Even if what you say is correct, they will argue on a technicality. The best way to not be that person is to make a deliberate attempt to agree with them or at least concede the point often enough that they feel respected.

    • Most of the things that are argued have no right or wrong. (Eg: hypotheticals) – tuskiomi Aug 22 at 18:23
    • Any argument can "have no right or wrong" if the participants cannot come to a consensus, @tuskiomi, hypothetical or not. It is not what two people argue about, but how they argue which determines how they will view the interaction. I can spend an hour arguing about, say, the eventual heat death of the universe and if I come away with the feeling that the other person was not receptive to what I had to say, I see no point in having future conversations. If I want to be lectured at I'll go to youtube. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Aug 26 at 21:29

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