Learning to Argue Well (and Teaching Our Kids to Do the Same)

We should be teaching our children to argue.  If we expect our children to be able to defend their beliefs, then we need to teach them how to state a premise, to give an argument that defends that premise and then think through the reason as to why or why not their premise is right or wrong.

My guest recently on Embracing Your Greatness, my radio show on Radio Maria, was Matt Fradd from Catholic Answers.  We discussed his DVD “How to Win an Argument without Losing your Soul.” It became clear within minutes that I picked a guest in which more conversion must be had.

We are called to evangelize but to do that it means we must understand what an argument is and what an argument isn’t.  I must admit, when I think of the word “argument” I think of a heated debate with veins popping out of a person’s forehead and pointing fingers and scowling faces, stiff body postures, and definitely yelling.

But that is not what an argument is.  In fact, it is the opposite of an argument.

According to my online dictionary an argument is a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.  

A great example of this would be of a lawyer being asked by a judge to give his or her “closing arguments” to the jury.  Typically that would not include veins popping out of their heads, yelling and scowling, and the like.   Rather, the closing argument would be a summary statement of one’s belief, a few statements to back that belief, and then restating the belief.

For example: “My client cannot be guilty of this crime.  Two eye witnesses place my client out of the country during the time the crime was committed.  The DNA evidence was contaminated because the police did not secure the crime scene and three forensic specialists agree that the results were inconclusive.   This proves that my client is not guilty of the crime he/she is being accused of.”

So if an argument is laying a case for or against something then we need to be arguing more and teaching our kids to do the same.

It has become apparent to me that people are having a very difficult time laying out an argument and then entering into a conversation to defend their position.  I think this is because we have forgotten how important it is for us to exercise our brains by using philosophy to broaden our understanding of things.  One reason might because of pride and a misunderstanding of justice.

When we are always right or “argue” a point from a position that we know everything and there is nothing to learn, we miss an opportunity to understand a world that may not use the same terms and definitions we do.  That is why the Socratic Method is a great tool in learning how to argue with people of different faiths or beliefs.  I love the example used on Wikihow.

Statement:  This table is blue.

Question: To a blind Person is this table still blue?  If no: proceed to next step.

If Yes: What makes it blue to a blind person and not green or pink?

If someone can’t see, what makes the table blue?  Is it their perception? Is it the rods and cones in our eyes that see the color? Is it the light that reflects the color? Is it the pigments or chemical composition that create a color?

This is the most fascinating aspect of using the Socrates Method to argue.  In asking these questions we teach our children the why’s and a deeper understanding than just a right answer.

How can we effectively dialogue with someone who may have many different reasons for believing what they believe? We must know what OTHER people believe before we can share OUR beliefs.

To begin evangelizing before we know what the person in front of us believes and why would be like going to Mexico and speaking Chinese.  That would be stupid. Something stupid is something that does not make any sense.  Speaking a language that someone cannot understand would make communication impossible.  Desiring to communicate but choosing a method that is impossible does not make sense, therefore it is stupid.

See what I did there? I just stated a premise and then laid the foundation of belief for that premise.  That is the Socratic Method—well, it is the dumbed down version.  I work best with the dumbed down versions.

The next step for those who decide that table is blue only to those who can see it is to change the initial statement to take the exception into account.

Now we challenge the new statement with another question.  “If the table is in the middle of an empty room, where no one can see it, is it still blue?”

This reminds me of the question “If a tree falls in a forest but there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

This exercise is very important because it begins a discussion/argument on what is sound.  Two different arguments can in theory be very right. Remember, the point is not to be right, it is to be humble enough to listen to the other person’s point of view so as to better understand their logic, their reasoning, and their beliefs, and thus be more capable of communicating ideas effectively.

This is where I have failed miserably as a parent.  I plan on rectifying this immediately. I’ve known that my children need to be better at defending their beliefs but I have been hard pressed as to how I can help them as 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 15-year-olds, and 20-somethings. I’ve struggled to help them understand the importance of being able to know why they believe something and then know how to effectively (the key word being effectively) communicate their beliefs to others.  This is evangelization: communicating their belief in Jesus Christ and their fullness of faith as Catholic Christians.

So where do we begin? According to Matt Fradd, ask your child to tell you what a sandwich is.  One example he gave was asking his child, “What is a bed?”  His son replied, “It is a hard thing.”  

So he responded with, “So it is a rock.”  

His son replied, “No, it is a big thing.”  

So Matt stated, “It is big, like a truck?”  

His small son got giddy and replied, “No! ” Then looking down at the sheets on his bed, which had writing, stated, “It has writing on it.”  

Matt laughingly stated, “Ah, so it is like a book.”  

Some may think this is a silly waste of time with a 6-year-old.  I say it is exercising the mind of a future evangelist.  What makes something something? We’re teaching ourselves to ask questions so as to allow better communication, thus not alienating the people around us by preaching our beliefs. But this also teaches our kids to think about why they believe something and how to communicate it in a way someone can understand.

Brilliant.  Who would have thought the most effective way to teach our kids to be evangelizers would mean to ask them questions and then teach them to argue with us about their answers?

Let me tell you that I have learned so much from people as I have traveled across the globe speaking. I remember meeting a woman on an airplane who was a practicing witch and believed that mother earth was the goddess that effected events in her life.  

For the first hour she felt that I was arguing with her to be argumentative.  I was not.  I truly desired to know why she believed what she believed and what were her experiences and “truths” that brought her to her conclusions.  My first obstacle to overcome was the language barrier.  It became very clear to me that when I said “God” we were talking about two different things.  It took at least another 30 minutes of the Socratic method for me to understand how to talk about God with her.  

Terminology was very important. The other obstacle was to get her to see that I was not trying to be right or change her mind, rather I wanted to get her to begin thinking about why she believed what she believed.

Too often we think we are supposed to throw people over the walls that separate them from God.  What would happen if we throw people over a wall? They would most probably become injured.  

God does not force himself on anyone and neither should we.  The Holy Spirit is who opens people’s eyes to the truth.

Instead of desiring to throw people over the wall, let’s bring them a ladder.  Then their progress over the wall can go as fast or slow as they need to go.  It will also be there when we leave.

Evangelization begins with humbling ourselves to know that God has a plan for each of our lives.  He is not dependent upon any ONE person to bring someone to Christ.  

If we want to evangelize, we should begin with asking questions.  We should then define our terms.  We should be prepared to state a premise and then to argue it.  When we argue we should be listening to the person we are arguing with so we can better understand their objections with the hope of planting a seed of desire for truth in their hearts.   When people seek the truth, they more often than not find God.     

So when Matt Fradd was asking his child to describe what a bed was,  he was actually teaching his son to one day become a great Crusader for Christ.  Way to go, Matt!

Copyright 2014 Christina King

One Comment
  1. ongom rufino
    February 1, 2014 | Reply

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