Recently, I had a confrontation with someone close to me, a confrontation that left me feeling hurt and defensive. I knew my immediate reaction (to withdraw entirely) wasn’t very healthy, but I wasn’t sure what I should do or say.
That afternoon, I was teaching a writing class where, not so coincidentally, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about rhetoric. In the middle of my lecture, I had an epiphany. I knew what to do.
I needed to argue.
Now, before I get misunderstood, I don’t mean “argue” in the classic, pick a fight, act contentious fashion. In fact, most of us who study rhetoric would distinguish between a fight, where one person aims to “win” regardless of cost, and an argument, or discourse intended to persuade. Arguments can (and I think should) be civil.
The cool thing about rhetoric, and one of the things that initially drew me to its study, is that rhetoric is ultimately about getting things done with language. Anytime we use language purposefully—to apologize, to make romantic overtures, to heal a rift in a friendship—we’re using rhetoric. And most of the time, we’re making an argument. (Of course, not all rhetoric is about arguments. Sometimes rhetoric can be used simply to invite understanding.)
In my writing class that day, we talked about Jay Heinrich’s three categories of argument (which he, in turn, gets from Aristotle):
- Arguments about the past, where the goal is to determine praise or blame. These arguments are often couched in past tense. Anyone who’s had children knows about these arguments: “He started it!” “ No, she did!” According to Heinrichs, these arguments often aren’t very productive because they make us defensive, and they often degenerate into fights.
- Arguments about the present, focused on differences in values. Sometimes, these are the most painful confrontations, because values are often so personally held and for most of us, values are non-negotiable. When we argue in the present tense, we’re often focused on establishing ourselves as more morally virtuous than our opponent.
- Arguments about the future, focused on choice. Heinrichs believes that these arguments are the most productive, because they allow us to move past disagreements about value and blame and decide what should be done. Focusing on the future allows us to say, “Yes, I may have been a jerk, but what are we going to do about this problem?”
As I outlined these different categories for my students, I realized that the confrontation earlier was conducted almost entirely in past and present tense. The focus on the past (on things I had done or not done) left me feeling like I was being unfairly blamed. (Or perhaps not so unfairly, in all honesty). But the essential disagreement stemmed from differences in values, differences that were unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
I realized that, while I couldn’t change the past, or persuade my friend to change her values, I might be able to heal our rift by focusing, as Heinrichs suggests, on the future–on choices.
The next time I saw my friend, I apologized for my initial, defensive reaction, and then offered a compromise in the form of a course of action. I would try to do better, if she tried harder to understand where I was coming from. We both agreed to try.
Now, I’m not suggesting that this method—shifting the tense of our arguments to focus on the future—is fool proof. Human relations are too unpredictable and too emotionally charged for any one method to work all the time. Not only that, but some audiences are simply not a rhetorical audience: they’re incapable of being persuaded by any kind of discourse.
But for me, I find that thinking about my relationships rhetorically—that is, thinking about what I want to achieve through language—helps me focus more on cooperation, and less on my own (often selfish) interests.
What about you? What strategies do you find useful in your own disagreements? What value do you find in rhetoric (the purposeful study and deployment of language)?