Several months ago my sister recommended a TED Talk to me. The Talk was given by Megan Phelps-Roper, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. In her TED Talk, Ms. Phelps-Roper explains how she was encouraged to change her worldview as a result of several conversations she had with people outside the church and family that compromised her entire universe. She identified four specific steps the people she talked to used to help her change her mind. Those four steps became the basis for the four-part series I have been writing on how to have difficult conversations. We have already discussed the first three of these steps: 1. Don’t assume the either side has bad intentions. 2. Ask questions. 3. Stay calm. The final step in the process outlined in Ms. Phelps-Roper’s TED Talk is Step 4: Make the Argument.

Ms. Phelps-Roper has been in the news in the past few weeks. Reese Witherspoon just announced, through her production company, that she will be making a movie about Ms. Phelps-Roper’s life, based on a New Yorker article profiling Ms. Phelps-Roper, as well as a book she is in the process of having published. As a result, it may soon be possible to see the four steps put into action in a theater near you.

Arguing Without Fighting

The first thing to point out is Ms. Phelps-Roper is not talking about arguing in the colloquial way we often think of that term. She is envisioning an open-minded exchange of ideas where you articulate the reasons for your position and give the other side space to do the same. This is not the type of argument you can find on the various cable news shows where multiple participants share a split screen and attempt to talk over each other and make the sharpest comment. Instead, think about a discussion between the ancient philosophers. One person would make his argument about the fundamental nature of the universe. “All things are made of water. Plants, trees, animals and people all require water to survive. Therefore water must be the fundamental element of which all things are made.” Then another person would take a turn. “What about fire. Fire does not need water, and in fact, water eliminates fire. They are opposite forces. Therefore there must be two fundamental elements of all things—fire and water.” Then a third would point out that air is neither fire nor water, so there are three forces, and so on. It was an active process of listening to the points someone made, giving them serious consideration and either agreeing or rebutting them, with your own evidence and analysis. This is what Ms. Phelps-Roper is referring to when she says to make the argument. Engaging in this active process of listening to the ideas of others while still advocating and defending your ideas. It requires restraint and respect to be successful.

Once we understand what she means by “argument,” this step makes more sense. In the context of trying to have more civil conversations, it does not seem helpful to argue like we are on a talk show. But actively listening and exchanging ideas does seem like a good idea.  

Express Your Position Rationally

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The reason this step is necessary is that the other side may not know why we believe as we do on the issue at hand. In her talk, Ms. Phelps-Roper points out “one side effect of having strong beliefs is we often assume the value of our position is, or should be, obvious and self-evident; that we shouldn’t have to defend our positions because they’re so clearly right and good that if someone doesn’t get it, it’s their problem – that it’s not my job to educate them. But if everything were that simple we would all see things the same way.” Because we as a society have gotten so used to trying to win arguments by simply being louder, we have lost the ability to articulate our position in a rational, calm, persuasive manner. We have, sadly, stopped making clear points and settled for calling each other names.

Understanding Is Key

Mark Twain famously illustrated the problem of not understanding how to make a rational argument in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At one point in the book Huck and the escaped slave, Jim, are arguing about who was the wisest person ever. Huck essentially argues everyone knows King Solomon was the wisest person and use the famous story of two women each claiming to be the mother of an infant. King Solomon decides to divide the baby in half. Jim responds that his decision is not wise at all because half of a baby is no good to anyone. If you know the story of King Solomon you know that his wisdom was in knowing that the real mother would never agree to divide a baby – she would give up her claim rather than see harm done to her child. As a result, King Solomon was able to determine who the real mother of the infant was and, of course, the baby was not harmed. But Huck does not understand the story; he simply knows that he has been told that King Solomon was very wise and this story proves it. Huck does not know how to argue his point to convince Jim and so, he fails. Huck is left to mutter a racial epithet and give up. Huck had the stronger position, but Jim made the better argument.

A Positive Outcome For Everyone Involved

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In the first article of this series, I use an illustration that shows the power of making the argument. In the example, a father requests additional overnight time with his children, and mom objects. Typically the argument devolves into a fight over child support, and no one really gets to the issue of what will work best for the children. In the example, I posited that mom would be better off pointing out that dad lives 45 minutes away from the children’s school and has to be to work by 7:30 in the morning. Dad and the kids would have to leave the house at 6:00 a.m. to allow him to get to work on time. This is an example of making the argument – this schedule change will not work because of the commute time. In the hypothetical, I said perhaps dad can come in later one day a week. He would then have the opportunity to make his argument – I may not be able to take the kids to school most of the time, but I can on Thursday because I do not have to be at work until 9:00. By making the argument, each side now has a better understanding of the position and feelings of the other side. We might be able to craft a solution that is better for the parties and, especially, for the children. But we only get to that point when each side constructively makes the argument. As Megan Phelps-Roper says, “We can’t expect others to spontaneously change their own minds. If we want change, we have to make the case for it.”

I hope this series of articles has been helpful and worthwhile. From time to time we all find ourselves forced into difficult conversations. If we practice utilizing these four steps, I believe we can do a better job of keeping things civil and finding better solutions.