How to Understand an Argument

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 04-30-24

A good question is one of the most valuable of my possessions, and I am always looking to add to my collection.

I discovered, or rediscovered, a powerful question from commentator and author David Brooks. He was giving a talk at Lehigh University for the Hagerman Lecture from The Center for Ethics and was exploring how to be curious in the face of someone who believes very different things. The question he prefers to use is:

How did you come to believe this?

The fact is that when someone believes something that you just can’t comprehend how, it is useful to understand what facts, experiences, principles, or other influences generated that belief.

This can be just as useful for opinions such as “that restaurant is awful”, “that leader is ineffective”, and all the way to ones like “woke capitalism is destroying America.”

First, if your primary goal is to win an argument, which sometimes is absolutely and necessarily the goal, then you need to understand the source material behind opposing views. Second, but more importantly, it provides you empathy on how someone reached a conclusion different from yours, and allows you to appreciate their view being more natural, simply based on different raw inputs. Third, you get to do that without putting the person on the defensive which will likely result in less information rather than more.

This third reason is very important. When a situation is emotionally charged, then that emotion is one of the ingredients in your efforts to formulate the next question. That often results in a more charged and less effective question rather than a disarming one.

Having well crafted questions already prepared and ready to be recalled can increase your chances of operating objectively and effectively. When I find a useful question, I try to build it into my easily-accessed memory for quick reference.

What are some of your favorite questions? Here’s a few more of mine:

  • What do we not know about this problem, and what’s the best way to learn?
  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Why do you need to personally own this problem?
  • Is there a right answer or many good answers to this problem?