W- and I are getting married in less than two weeks. In preparation for that (and as a way of keeping sane during the pre-wedding hullabaloo), we’ve been learning how to argue. You’ve gotta love a man whose reaction to a challenging situation is to not only figure how to address the conflict, but also to learn more about effective communication.

You might be thinking: Isn’t rhetoric about political grandstanding, slick salesmanship, and mouldy Greeks and Romans? Isn’t “argument” just a fancy word for “fight?”

I thought so too, non-confrontational me. It turns out that learning more about rhetoric and argument can make relationships even better. In “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion,” Jay Heinrichs points out the difference between fighting to win and arguing to win people over. What’s more, he uses familiar situations drawn from everyday life: persuading his teenage son to get him toothpaste, defusing potential fights with his wife, and analyzing the selling techniques and marketing tactics that beseige us.

My first encounter with Heinrichs was when W- pointed me to Heinrichs’ post on “How to Teach a Child to Argue.” It’s a clever example of logos, ethos, and pathos. Reading it, I thought: Hey, this is so practical. Then I wondered: Why didn’t I learn this in school? But I brought myself firmly back into a focus on the future by asking: What can I do to get better at this? When Heinrich writes about the past (forensic), present (demonstrative), and future (deliberative) tenses of arguments, I recognize my own urge to focus on moving forward–practical things we can do–during difficult conversations that threaten to spiral into blame games or overgeneralizations. Learning more about rhetoric helps me understand the patterns, working with them without being sucked in.

It isn’t easy to admit to learning more about rhetoric and argument. One downside of reading mybooks on communication and relationships as a child was that people occasionally doubted if I meant what I said. As a grade school kid, I found it hard to prove I wasn’t being manipulative. It’s still hard even now, but at least experiences give me more depth and reassurance that I’m not just making things up. I like Heinrichs’ approach. He and his family are well aware of the tactics they use, but they relate well anyway, and they give each other points for trying. I’m sure we’ll run into unwarranted expectations along the way – learning about argument doesn’t mean I’ll magically become an empathetic wizard of win-win! – but I’d rather learn rhetoric than stumble along without it.

Besides, argument – good argument, not fights – could be amazing. In “Ask Figaro“, Heinrichs writes:

“My wife and I believed that happy couples never argued; but since we started manipulating each other rhetorically (we recognize each other’s tricks, which just makes it all the more fun), we’ve become a happier couple.”

To learn more beyond “Thank You for Arguing”, we’ve also raided the library for other rhetoric books. Nancy Wood’s “Essentials of Argument” is a concise university-level textbook with plenty of exercises that I plan to work on after the wedding. “Critical Inquiry: The Process of Argument” also promises to be a good read. These are not books to skim and slurp up. They demand practice.

Results so far: I have had deeper conversations with W-, had a still-emotional-but-getting-better conversation with my mom (I’m getting better at recovering my balance), and conceded an argument with Luke about dinner. (It’s hard to argue with a cat who sits on your lap and meows – pure pathos in action.) I’ll keep you posted. I look forward to practicing rhetoric in blogging, too.

I’ve won the relationship lottery, I really have. In a city of 5.5 million people, in the third country I’ve lived in, I found someone who exemplifies the saying: When the going gets tough, the tough hit the books.

(edited for clarity)

One Pingback/Trackback

  • @sachac The distinctions between rhetoric, argumentation and conversation are fine … but worth figuring out. In consulting training, we used to learn from people at the Harvard Negotiation Project on “Getting to Yes” (see on Google Books). This was later refined into “Difficult Conversations” (see on Google Books). While the first tends to be more strategic conversation, the latter is practical in that we all end up having conversations where it’s difficult to “break the message”, and we have to move forward.

    One person that I follow for business conversations — but not necessarily personal conversations — is Fernando Flores (e.g. the Fast Company 1998 article on “The Power of Words”. There’s a broader context in conversations for action, for clarification, for possibilities, and for orientation that I use in my background knowledge in the interests of being clear (and specifically for being manipulative … although people won’t don’t know me well may or may not eventually get comfortable with the way I speak).

  • Sweet, ordered Getting to Yes and Difficult Conversations from Amazon. =D Looking forward to learning more about this (and bugging you for more insights – yay multidisciplinary mentors! ;) ).

  • mom

    <comment redacted on my mom’s request>

    Just remember, as a mother who fiercely loves you, I am learning to let go precisely because I love you.

    Much love,

  • Two weeks before the wedding and you’re learning how to communicate better rather than dieting manically and turning into a crazed bridezilla? That is so awesome and inspiring :-)

    Different, but related to managing conflict – Leadership and Self Deception and then the second book The Anatomy of Peace are really, really amazing and I’m finding the ideas super helpful in managing a difficult situation right now.

    Stay happy!

  • Mom: Edited my posts for clarity. Does that help? (Also, you can e-mail feedback to me in the future if you don’t want it to show up in the blog comments.) I think it’s great that we can have these kinds of conversations, even if they’re sometimes harder to have than other conversations are. I’ve shared many things that I’ve loved about growing up in our family, but it’s also useful to talk about the things I’m still figuring out. For example, if W- and I were to raise kids using those tips from How to Teach a Child to Argue, will we run into trust issues or can we have interesting family dynamics?

    Cate: I refuse to give in to the notions of body-policing or the idea of optimizing for photographs because This! Day! Must! Be! Perfect!. Besides, crash diets are bad for you. Much better to develop healthy habits, yes — we’ve incorporated spinach shakes into our breakfast routine, and we enjoy biking. But that’s because we want to live well, not because we want to look good at the wedding.

    In fact, I’m skipping makeup and hairstyling, although I will wear contacts. I’d rather look like myself during the wedding than a dolled up version of me.

    I’ve been trying to avoid becoming a bridezilla since the engagement, despite people’s frustration with our not signing up for registries or dictating colours. ;) In fact, I can’t wait until we get the paperwork over with and we can get back to a life without all those emotionally-laden expectations. Which we’ll probably enjoy until we have kids, and then there’ll be a spike in expectations again, and then we can settle into the day-to-day delights and work of raising them. This is no one’s fault, except perhaps media and culture.

    Rhetoric is a terrific tool for resisting advertising, actually. The fetishistic reporting of celebrity marriages (ooh! the crystal! ooh! the helicopter!) establishes an extreme against which spending $20,000 – $30,000 for a wedding in Canada (the average from Weddingbells’ reader survey, which skews towards bridezilla-ness) feels “normal”. That average is still a lot of money to spend on a single day. Sneakily, though, it serves as an anchor for people’s evaluations. If you end up spending $18,000, you feel frugal and reasonable. The way to deal with that tactic is to plan from the ground up instead of basing the plan on popular expectations. As a result, it’s easier to avoid paying for things that aren’t really essential.

    Thanks for the book recommendations! I’ll look for them at the library.

  • That’s awesome :-) I’ve long thought it bonkers to spend the equivalent of a deposit on a house on one day – should I ever manage this whole commitment malarky, I’ll definitely elope!

  • We considered that, too. I can’t count the number of times we joked about that as a possibility during the planning. <laugh> The potential stress of dealing with an elopement outweighed the potential stress of planning a small wedding, though, so we opted for the wedding.

    We’re keeping it pretty frugal, and we’re in good shape when it comes to our budgets. The biggest expense is going to be food, but that’s because we’re feeding people twice: a lunch barbecue at our house, and then a dinner buffet at a Chinese restaurant. =) We’re also taking care of people’s accommodations and meals during the week or so that they’re here, which is no less than what my parents do for us when we visit the Philippines. Those expenses are well worth it. What else is money for? I’d rather host my family in Canada for an extra two days than arrive at City Hall in a limo. ;) (Or save it for half a trip to the Philippines…)

  • Hi Sacha,

    Just a note of congratulations and best wishes on your coming wedding. Sounds like you two are off to a great start.

  • just saw this now. best wishes!

  • lisa

    Hi Sancha,

    Thank you for the lovely posts and congrats long after on your wedding…

    Here is the problem: Most people feel that others cause the problems, but few people feel they themselves cause them. Its called Self-Deception-

    LOL… In fact love to share with you a blog: <> that came across my way on intriguing find on deception and thought I would share this with you and all who wish to read it… it was my luck to come across it though!

    Cheers and all the best to you!

  • Problems? What problems? They’re learning opportunities. ;)

    Haven’t come across a problem that hasn’t helped me figure something out.

  • lisa

    Hi Sacha,

    Nice to hear from you again.. Yes def… Problems are def- learning opportunities!! even for myself as a student … btw relating to your blog you mentioned “argue” and “blame” which was why i actually used the term “problem”-

    Anyways glad to see how you are seeing around the “problem” or as the “Leadership and Self-Deception” book says- “getting out of the Box!” Very Positive and sadly not many of my friends aren’t lyk this….

    If you were wondering: I got to your blog by tailgating to what Cate whom mentioned on a book called “Anatomy of Peace”.

    Pasting Cate’s comment it here for your ref:
    “Different, but related to managing conflict – Leadership and Self Deception and then the second book The Anatomy of Peace are really, really amazing and I’m finding the ideas super helpful in managing a difficult situation right now.?”

    Anyways just to share I recently completed reading the Anatomy of Peace ..whilst i stumbled over a blog called [email protected]… Must say every Singaporean or anyone should grab a copy- tells us alot about overselves and how we are just self-deceived in a way… how to get out of deception — very interesting in simple wrds… read it if you get hold of the bk!

    Great to have met you Sacha!

  • Regarding argument and blame: one of the wonderful insights I picked up from Thank You for Arguing is the difference between past-, present-, and future-focused arguments. (More notes here). Past-focused arguments are about blame: who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? Present-focused arguments tend to become character judgments: you are so insensitive! Future-focused arguments are what help us grow and move on: what can we do to fix this and prevent this from happening in the future? Both W- and I strongly favour future-focused discussions. Even in casual conversations with my friends, I’m the one who itches to move abstract debates about economics or politics to, “Well, what are we going to do about it?”

    There’s nothing scary about a good argument, as long as you know how to argue fairly.

  • lisa

    Hi Sacha,

    Time is flying so fast… anyways… Thanks for sharing-‘Thank you for arguing’… found it very insightful…I am sharing this with my friends…

    Sancha I believe that arguing is good to an extent which doesn’t go out of control or as you put- arguing ‘fairly’ with a sense of maturity is always vital. It is this maturity which implements our ability to develop more fruitful discussions…

    Which is actually what self-deception points out to– as when we are being to be “in the box” we are acting in a way that is ‘resistant’. In fact the reason to why your friends do not get upset or totally break off a friendship with you could humbly said that they believe in your friendship and value your comments…. I feel that is very powerful in human interaction…

    Are you a philosophical person by nature or does this have something to do with the kind of job you are in? Just curious as you have expressed yourself here so wonderfully…

    Cheers and happy weekend!

  • Pingback: Looking back at life as a 27-year-old | sacha chua :: living an awesome life()