Six Rules for Having a Good Argument


From time to time someone tries to pick an argument with me about religion. On the whole, I try to avoid anything I think will generate more heat than light, especially if I’m not feeling well or haven’t time to give the matter my full attention. I particularly dislike the kind of argument that is loaded with cheap gibes, unsubstantiated allegations, or tries to wrong-foot one by beginning ‘you should . . .’ (which usually means, you shouldn’t say/do anything I dislike, certainly not argue back). Part of my reluctance stems from self-knowledge: I don’t want to use such intelligence as I have to crush or belittle another, and that is always a temptation when someone is being annoying. But there is a more important reason. No one I know has ever been argued into virtue, still less, holiness; and being dismissive or supercilious or condescending merely reinforces the idea that Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, can be very unpleasant. It is even worse when we quarrel among ourselves. Feathers fly, and onlookers draw their own conclusions.

Of course, we may see ourselves as valiant for truth. We argue with every ounce of our being for something we believe in and do not always recognize that we have undermined our case by our manner of arguing. When I was active in the pro-life movement, I was sometimes dismayed by the anger and hatred some displayed. It left me wondering what was going on inside. Was being pro-life really just an excuse to vent a lot of negative feelings? I hope not, but it did seem like that occasionally. I still believe that it is possible to have a good argument, but there are a few ground rules which I try, with varying success, to observe myself. See if you agree with mine.

Six Rules for Having a Good Argument

  1. The subject of the argument must matter. Life is too short, and people are too important, to waste time on trivialities that will leave a trail of wounded feelings and misunderstandings in their train. Not everyone is naturally combative!
  2. One must respect the person with whom one is arguing — so no insults or crudely mocking remarks, and be very careful about using humour. What is wit to one is devastating sarcasm to another. Most people are sincere in what they believe or don’t believe: we should respect their honesty and treat them courteously.
  3. One must be prepared to accept that another may not wish to respond. Not everyone is confident that they know enough or can argue well enough to explain why they think or believe as they do. They have a right to be silent; and just because we want to argue now, that is no reason for assuming that the other person does.
  4. One must know when to stop.
  5. Both before we begin, and, above all, afterwards, we should ask the Holy Spirit not only to enlighten us but also to put right anything we may have got wrong, to calm any disturbance we may have caused and — unless you are very unlike me — to pacify any angry or hostile feelings we may have ourselves.
  6. An argument does not have to be won in order to be good.

You will notice that my ground rules are mainly about how we argue, rather than how we respond to those who want to argue with us; but I think that if we keep the general principles in mind, they are helpful when someone wants to take us to task. My sixth rule is the hardest of all to practise, but I suspect it is the most valuable. We do not need to have the last word to make our point.


11 thoughts on “Six Rules for Having a Good Argument”

  1. Fantastic Sister! Thank you. I so resonate with this. Calming the inner storm can be quite a challenge for the Holy Spirit (and me)! I try my best to avoid conflict wherever possible (being a bit of a coward at times), and whilst that is often wise, from time to time I have found that I should have had the courage to have the hard conversation, in order to avoid conflict brewing. Never easy…..

    Praying for you still

  2. Very good, Dame Catherine, but if one has caused upset I think that is very important to apologise and attempt to make peace ‘before nightfall’ even if it isn’t you that has caused offence. It’s a bit like the very British habit of saying sorry even when the other person bumped into you.
    Leaving an argument to fester isn’t good, but some people just love to hold onto hurts and grievances like a comfort blanket. Unfortunately it is the worst thing they can do.

    • I don’t think we are disagreeing, it’s just that I don’t say everything every time I blog! Previous posts have stressed the importance of apologizing. In this one I have emphasized that we need to pray in order to see where we have gone wrong and to have the grace to put it right; and where we can’t put it right, to allow the Holy Spirit to work in both us and the other (cf St Thérèse).

  3. Wonderful insight. It sounds like real experience of debating is being expressed rather than bad tempered arguing.

    Now I have to engage in a debate next month on a contentious subject ‘A Just War’ which as a military person, I should be able to argue with integrity. From a purely academic viewpoint I am more than capable of making the case for it – but from my now, pacifist heart I’m struggling. I hope that the other side are kind 🙁

  4. These are certainly good guidelines. My mother used to complain that I always had to have the last word, and I can’t really disagree with that complaint, so knowing when to stop is one particularly appropriate for me to remember. Generally, when I find myself repeating what I said previously, I think that I should hold my tongue.

    This is good for me to recall when in a disagreement:

    After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand. “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”

    (Matthew 15 : 10 – 11)

  5. I apologize for accidentally hitting “send” before finishing! The incomplete sentence should read, “In Christianity we are justifiably warned about the sin of pride and virtue of humility, as Sr. Catherine has recently reminded us in her blog series on St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility.

    Please add at the end of what I wrote, “In most East Asian languages, the word for “mind” and “heart” are the same or similar. When we have a respectful and open mind, we also open our hearts in compassion and understanding to others, even if we do not agree. Don’t all human, and hence, global conflicts, violence, wars, genocides begin in needing to be right, above other values and goals?

  6. I’m sorry about my previous comment! There was a previous bit of a comment that didn’t make it in. I quoted a revered Zen Buddhist teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, very few.” We all want to be experts, when in fact, in most subjects, we are beginners. Much of the discord in our own lives and the world seems to come from our need to be right, as individuals, groups, and nations. I know I often jump in and make a mess because of this need. Think of the revolution that would happen if, whatever we believe is right, we could accept and allow that others will think and believe differently, and drop our need to “convert” them to our beliefs!

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