Discussion vs. Argument

One of the first things my philosophy 101 professor taught us was the difference between arguing with someone and having a discussion. Many people actually only know how to argue and that can make philosophical debates difficult, if not impossible. I have found that knowing the difference has actually improved my relationships with family and friends, so I thought maybe you readers might like it as well.

An argument is something we have all had. We disagree with someone about something, anything. It can be as mundane as how to load the dishwasher and be as complex as the origin of the universe. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll go with the dishwasher one. It seems everyone has an opinion on how to do it, and their way is the absolute best way. Now imagine a husband and wife. In our scenario, the dishwasher is normally the husband’s job but the wife decided to do it one night to be nice. The next day, when the husband goes to put everything away, he is dismayed at the way she put the silverware in. He tells her she’s doing it wrong. She gets defensive—first of all, she was just being nice. Second of all, everything is clean, right? He gets irritated because that’s not his point, he organizes all the silverware in the bins so that it is easier to put away. Next, the couplebegins yelling at each other. They go from yelling about silverware and dishwashers to how he makes her feel like her opinion is always wrong and how unappreciated he feels. And it started with a dishwasher! That is an example of an argument: it is emotional, it encompasses more than the actual issue at hand, and regardless of whether our couple makes up at the end, there will likely be hurt feelings. Characteristics of arguments include name calling, accusations, and frustration on both sides.

When people have a discussion, on the other hand, they are not simply waiting for their turn to speak. Participants in a discussion do not have to agree, and one side does not have to “win” or persuade the other person to admit wrong or agree with them. The idea behind a discussion requires all parties to come into the conversation viewing the others as equals, with opinions worthy of respect. You may fully believe that they are wrong—and they may very well be—but in a discussion, your job is to let them express their opinion on why they believe what they do. This is especially true in something like philosophy, where a well-thought out argument may be valid on all sides of the discussion. While a discussion may go off on a tangent, it is usually a natural progression of the conversation and tends to expand on the original idea. At the end of a discussion, all parties tend to feel that their voices have been heard, their ideas respected, and they may even have walked away from the table having learned something or gained respect for their ‘opponent’.

Discussions can be hard, especially when the other side really just wants to argue. But they do have more benefits and fewer drawbacks than arguments. I have noticed that students in my classes who are big arguers tend to shut down thoughtful discussion—other students are too intimidated to speak, even when they feel they have a valid idea to contribute. I would imagine that it is very similar in relationships, too.