We argue when we want to give people good reasons to change what they do or think.
In school or the workplace, people argue because they agree on a problem but not its solution. These arguments are best when they are collaborative rather than confrontational: the goal is not to have winners and losers but to find good solutions to shared problems.
When you make a professional or academic argument, others expect you to give them good reasons to change what they do or think because they expect to be treated as rational agents who do and think things because they believe they are right, not because they are forced to (coercion), lied to (propaganda), or paid off (negotiation).
People make arguments when they want to change what others do or think. We engage in casual argument all the time.
When you hear the word argument, you might envision politicians trading criticisms to "win" public support, or debaters trying to win a contest, or a couple fighting about whose turn it is to do the dishes. But you should not think of your academic or professional arguments as contests or battles in which you attack others’ positions and defend your own; in which you shoot down other’s ideas or overwhelm them with your evidence; in which in order for you to win someone has to lose.
A lot of everyday argument is like that, mini battles that let the winner get their way; but most are not. We notice the battles because they are noisier, but our days are full of arguments in which we collaborate with our friends and colleagues to figure out the best solutions for what we should do or think. So when you make an academic or professional argument, remember that you need to enlist others as allies to help you solve your problem by doing or thinking what you ask of them. It’s a bad idea to treat those you need to be your allies as though they were opponents. Instead, think of them as colleagues whose ideas and beliefs you have to take as seriously as your own.
The language we use to talk about such everyday argument reveals a typical way of thinking about argument: when we say someone "won" an argument, we are thinking of argument as war, where there is a winner and a loser. But in the workplace and the academy, we need think about argument differently. When we argue about a shared problem, everyone is interested in the success of a solution, and there may be more than one right way to solve the problem. For this reason, you don't need to "win" an argument to succeed.
Since the goal of academic and professional argument is to solve a problem, you don’t always have to win your readers over completely in order to succeed. For some problems, you will need readers to fully accept and act on your claim; but that kind of full acceptance is rare and hard to achieve, and for many problems you can succeed with much less. Here are nine levels of acceptance that might be good enough for you to count your argument as a success:
Reader, I want you to:
|1) accept, believe, and act on my claim wholeheartedly.|
|2) accept my claim.|
|3) accept my claim, at least for this specific purpose.|
|4) acknowledge that my claim is one you could accept, even if you are not now prepared to do so.|
|5) accept that my argument is a good one, even if you cannot fully accept my claim.|
|6) accept that, even if you do not accept my claim, others would have good reason for doing so.|
|7) acknowledge that my claim is supported by a coherent and reasonable argument.|
|8) acknowledge that my claim is supported by an argument that others might find coherent and reasonable.|
|9) acknowledge that you at least understand my reasons for making my claim.|
We would never get anything done if we always needed everyone involved to accept a plan or an idea with 100% conviction and certainty. But when we make the kinds of arguments that treat others as collaborators rather than enemies, that treat their ideas and beliefs with respect, and that recognize that we can’t achieve 100% agreement 100% of the time, not only do we improve our own chances of success but we also support some other important goals: