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Opinion: The case for learning to argue well

Truth Be Told

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Local municipal elections are just weeks away, and it’s got me reflecting on areas of divisiveness in our community that may be impacted by voters.

The vice president of the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education was ousted from her position at the last board meeting. Two board seats are on the ballot, and the candidates represent a variety of viewpoints on governance. The last Springfield election’s heated vote over a proposed development in the Galloway Village neighborhood has launched the campaign of a challenger to the city’s three-term mayor. Disagreement over Springfield City Council’s use of eminent domain on the building that is home to a haunted attraction has some citizens looking to overturn the body’s vote and send the measure to voters at a future election. The at times competing interests of building and neighborhood preservation and development could continue to raise challenges with the next iteration of council.

I am not remarking on the merit of these actions, but rather that within these challenges, dissent, argument and compromise are essential to healthy communities. But it appears in some instances, we’re not able or willing to argue well.

I recently connected with Heather Walters on this topic. She’s a senior instructor in Missouri State University’s Communication Department and has taught about argumentation at the university for 23 years.

She says some trace the increased feeling of division felt across the country to the 2016 presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“The partisanship that exists in political circles has started filtering down into our communities a lot more,” Walters says. “People, more than they did several years ago, think that their political enemy must be their personal enemy.”

She also says the prevalence of disinformation heightens disagreements. As someone in the business of facts, I too often hear and read passionate stances on local issues that have gotten the facts plain wrong. The echo chambers easily built on social media don’t do this any favors. We like to talk with people who agree with us, and sometimes that leads to building opinions on false or misinformed narratives.

“When people are using their own agenda when they’re speaking to someone, they are really speaking more to persuade,” Walters says.

When done well, arguing is a foundation to collaboration and is a tenet of a deliberative democracy, she says.

It’s also a key element in developing business strategy and new products. Good business doesn’t stem from a team member sharing an idea and everyone else either wholly agreeing or beating it down. More information is shared when good questions are asked and points are challenged. That idea or strategy gets refined through the process.

Arguing can have a negative connotation, but its most basic definition is giving reasons for or against something. Walters says arguing can go wrong when people use emotion and opinions over data and facts and are unwilling to truly listen to the other person.

For the process to work, there are some rules of engagement. Here are Walters’ tips on arguing:

  1. Recognize arguments are necessary.
  2. Build relationships with others in the disagreement by finding common ground.
  3. Be intentional and specific about what the argument is about.
  4. Use data and research as much as you can.
  5. Understand that arguments are not about control.
  6. Argue positions, not people.

Safety feels like another important factor in arguing well, as it requires an open mind and heart to consider new information. In some environments, that’s just not possible without a lot of work.

I imagine in all of our workplaces we could find examples of how effective arguing improved relationships, processes and products.

Disagreements will continue to arise in our community and in the daily course of business. For those of us willing, I hope we see the power and possibilities in learning to argue well.

Springfield Business Journal Executive Editor Christine Temple can be reached at


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