Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a heated argument and thought, “How the heck did I get here and why am I arguing about this?” This is exactly what happened to me the other day with three close friends. We had decided to grab a beer and throw some darts to catch up, ironically at a bar called Friendly’s in south city St. Louis. We quickly found ourselves engaged in a heated argument about whether or not Lebron James is a hard worker, leader, and great player. What an absurd argument to be having with anyone, let alone three of my good friends. I forgot how to pick and choose my battles.
The conversation started innocent enough but quickly shifted gears because we starting using personal attacks to destroy each other’s credibility regarding sports, statistics, and our argumentation strategies. Being an academic, I asked them to define what they believed an “argument” meant. Stupid move. One of my buddies obviously viewed this as an attempt to condescend him and that was never my intention. In my head, I was using “argument by definition” to demonstrate that claims (what you want your audience to believe) that are backed by evidence (supporting material in the form of statistics, stories, examples, testimony) are more worthy of support, and thus, the analogy I was using about Lebron being a great player and leader was correct. My “argue by definition” strategy failed for several reasons.
I forgot to ask myself two important questions: Will I Remember This Conversation Tomorrow? Will This Conversation Have a Negative Impact on my Identity, Occupation, or Family? If the answers to both of these questions are no, find a way out of the conversation because it is a trivial matter that will only get you angry. I also forgot the maxim that arguing with a fool helps you become one. I am NOT saying that my friends are fools but rather that I was foolish to think that I could show them why they were wrong about Lebron, which was tied to the fact that we were arguing over subjective value judgments, judgments that have no objective criteria to weigh arguments against. We all looked (and sounded) like fools as our voices continued to rise and the curse words started to flow. We were clearly not listening to each other’s points (myself included) but were instead “waiting for our turn to speak.” There’s a big difference between listening and hearing ideas, and we were hearing the points we wanted to hear (confirmation bias) and not trying to make sense of them.
This brief scenario also demonstrates why people should pick and choose their arguments, conversations, conflicts, and battles. We got upset pretty quickly with each other, but for what? This conversation was obviously tied to our identities as friends, as sports fans, and as young professionals, but we overlooked these identity issues in favor of “winning” an unwinnable argument.
Luckily we are good friends and we each apologized to one another and went on to enjoy some good brews (and I put on a dart clinic free of charge!). One of the ways that we ended the unproductive argument was to focus on the Illinois Men’s Basketball game that was on television…we found a distraction. Then one of my friends made a self-deprecating remark that relieved tension.
Moral of the story: Never forget the power of humor to help relieve tension, release stress, and create a useful distraction that can help people get onto a more productive conversational playing field.
Ben Franklin tried to avoid trivial matters that serve no purpose, which would include arguing about sports. Sorry Lebron, but until you start hiring me to manage your conflicts, or until I become an investor in the Miami Heat or move to Miami, I probably won’t be coming to your defense when I hear people criticizing you.