In my family, we have not done the big family gatherings during the holidays since I was a teenager. Once my grandfather died, all of that seemed to stop. But to be honest, I don’t think anyone really misses it. Everyone seemed to be over it anyway. Like I said, my sister and I were teenagers, and therefore surly, and the adults could hardly tolerate being around each other. There was always tension or conflict, which my parents would always talk about in the car on the ride home. Luckily, they always sided with one another, so the discord didn’t follow us home. They were always on the same page and glad to be done with the holidays. Of course my sister and I were glad too, because we were surly teenagers. Since that time, our family gatherings have always been small, conflict-free, and full of love and laughter.
I know that’s not the case for everyone. Not everyone’s holidays are filled with love and joy, even when they are spent with family and friends. For some people, such gatherings are fertile ground for disagreements and arguments. I can only imagine how much worse it is these days with so many polarizing issues being volleyed back and forth. The past two years, while the world has been locked down, anxious and depressed under the weight of a global pandemic, have also made us into a captive audience that is able to see our social issues on full display. Things that we might have ignored in the past with the relatively short attention spans that we all seem to have these days, we were no longer able to ignore. And, everyone seems to take sides, no matter what the issues are, because taking sides is something human beings do very well.
I am no stranger to arguments. I’ve had many in my own personal relationships. They can be very stressful. However, in the academic sense of argumentation, I actually love them! As a professor of college writing, I spend my days teaching students how to analyze texts and formulate plausible arguments, using various techniques, depending on their goals. Do they want to prove they’re right or that their stance is valid? Or do they want to establish common ground and come together with the other party? It is, I think, my favorite form of writing. The idea of how we construct arguments, the study of rhetoric, has always intrigued me, and in a world filled with so many polarizing issues, I actually don’t understand why the art of argumentation and the understanding of logic aren’t more widely taught and embraced.
So, bear with me for a moment, I’m about to put on my professor hat and teach you a little bit of what I know about strategies for arguing. The Aristotelian form of argument, which is much like that which we see in trials, and the way most of us know how to argue and like to argue, even in our personal lives, focuses on winning, on proving that you are right and your opponent is wrong. This is usually a horrible technique to use at the holiday dinner table; and yet, this is how many arguments play out. The problem is that in most cases, no one wins. There are only hard feelings, continued conflict and tensions, and no real victor, plus the holidays are ruined!
I propose that you try a new approach this year because arguments with family and friends are different from arguments in the courtroom or argumentative essays. These are disagreements
with the people we are supposed to care about and love, and it would be nice to think that there is some way to come together, maybe to build consensus, or just to better understand one another. The resolution to every disagreement is not to pummel the opposing side, proving them right, so you can pound your chest pridefully, and declare, “I am right. You are wrong.” That’s the only way that most of us have ever been taught to disagree with someone else. As a professor of academic writing, I’m really excited to tell you that that is not the only form of argumentative writing; and, since writing is organized thinking, I think that a writing technique, a different strategy for arguing, might actually help us build better relationships with the people we love. Perhaps, it can even extend beyond that, enabling us to better understand opposing viewpoints in other places and spaces.
While Aristotelian arguments are classical and traditional arguments, Rogerian arguments, named after Carl Rogers, an American psychologist, might be a better approach for developing understanding, empathy, and compassion for others. My gift to you this holiday season is an explanation of the argument strategy in the form of a template/outline. But, rather than using it during an argument at the Christmas dinner table, I am going to recommend that you use it for your journaling so that when you arrive at the dinner table, you arrive with a different perspective and greater compassion.
The Rogerian Argument
Suggestion: Try this in your journal instead of or before trying it with your relatives and friends at the dinner table. Imagined dialogue is actually a very helpful journaling tool, providing us the opportunity to rehearse conversations that might be difficult to have in reality.
INTRODUCTION: This is where you state the issue, as you understand it, in objective language. You’re not taking any position at this point. You’re just describing the topic itself.
SUMMARY OF THE OPPOSING VIEWS: This is actually really challenging. You are going to summarize the opposing side’s point of view, and you’re going to do so as objectively as possible.
STATEMENT OF UNDERSTANDING: Now, this is where it gets even trickier and more challenging. This part of the process requires you to explain the contexts in which the opposite side’s point of view might actually be valid or plausible. This requires you to be more open-minded than most of us generally are when it comes to arguing our points of view. This can be really hard, but it can be so eye-opening.
SUMMARY OF YOUR VIEWS: Next, you get to summarize your own point of view. Finally!
STATEMENT OF CONTEXTS: Once you’ve summarized your own point of view, you explain in which contexts your point of view would be valid or plausible.
STATEMENT OF BENEFITS: Finally and to conclude, you will explain how and when adopting your point of view would be beneficial or advantageous.
Going through this exercise about a tough argument that might arise at the dinner table will help you navigate the discussions/arguments at the dinner table because it will open your mind in ways it wasn’t open before, allowing you to understand perspectives that are not your own. As difficult as it might be to believe that you may be able to see how something you thought you were diametrically opposed to might be plausible, it is a very open-minded and compassionate way to approach difficult conversations. I think that processing very difficult issues this way has made me a more reasonable and compassionate person, and even though I am not able to do it with every single topic, the fact that I’ve been able to do it with some issues, always gives me a reason to accept the possibility that common ground or a resolution might exist, even if I haven’t figured it out yet. It softens me, even when it is an issue in which I am diametrically opposed to someone else’s point of view.
This is my gift to you - an exercise on how to argue more effectively and in ways that might, hopefully, result in more unity. I think we all need ways to communicate better with one another to promote healing and build community and connections, as we move forward in the new year. We are not always going to agree with one another, even on festive occasions like holidays, but we have to, we must, allow ourselves the opportunity to grow by talking to people who share different views. We want them to “heal" us, just as much as they want to be heard. They are no different, even though we might think they are wrong.
I am wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season filled with love, warmth, and greater compassion.