6 Principles for How to Argue When You Disagree

Personal commentary: There’s been a lot of contentious opinions thrown around on threads recently, and the discussion has sidelined into a non-productive brawl.

This morning, I came across a pretty good article by Tim Keller, as well as a video commentary & discussion on the article by Robert Barron.

Though focused on discussions of Christian theology, the principles apply to FIRST as well. Adapting the verbiage of 6:

  1. Take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of others’ views.
  2. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not own.
  3. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.
  4. Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form.
  5. Seek to persuade, not antagonize—but watch your motives!
  6. Remember the [core values of FIRST], and stick to criticizing the [core idea, not the person]

Keeping in mind that every person here is a volunteer, every person has something to share, and every person has something to learn… High value knowledge, when shared, is an extremely valuable asset to the FIRST Community. I think it’s highly prudent to ensure disagreements are handled well - it keeps the topics productive, and ultimately keeps the value of these forum posts high.

This is especially important for questions of opinion or which are grounded in personal experience, rather than independently verifiable facts.

Maybe I’m just shouting into the void. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir. I don’t care. These are good things I know, and I want to share them.


Ah, selectively, got it!


The only thing I would add is to remember that written communication only conveys a tiny fraction (like 7%?) of the information of an actual face-to-face conversation. What you read may not be what the person was trying to say.


Maybe, but unlike in a face-to-face conversation on a forum you have all the time in the world to perfect your message. You lose a lot without that interaction, but you can make up for it by spending time organizing your thoughts, proof reading your posts, and choosing your words carefully.


True, and for this reason, I actually prefer written communication.

The safe assumption has to be:

  1. Spend lots of time carefully crafting your response
  2. Do not assume others did the same, and use caution as such.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the most efficient way to get stuff done. Another reason why I’m looking forward to getting back to in-person mentoring…

Evidence suggests this level of care is, um, not universal.


Something good to ask yourself when about to post about anything: Is what you are about to say something constructive? Or is it destructive?

Something I learned from people much wiser than me.

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6 Principles for How to Argue When You Disagree

:thinking: So we can disregard these principles when we’re arguing, as long as we agree?

Seriously, I think #4 should be re-phrased. A too-strong opinion can be an easier straw man than a more moderate opinion. Perhaps:

  1. Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its actual or most defensible form, not in a weak or extreme “straw man” form.

I enjoy this meta-arguing. Anyone want in on some meta-meta arguing?


We must go deeper


I’m not opposed to the rewording overall.

It actually forced me to review what a “straw man” actually is in this context. I’m rolling with the assumption it’s just a “weakely-fleshed-out, bare-bones framework of an argument”. To me, “weak” and “extreme” would be orthogonal here.

The danger of a straw-man argument is that the voids between the proverbial straw are getting filled with whatever the reader wants.

A straw-man is by definition a “weak argument”, which could get fleshed out into “extreme” position. And, the point of four simply says: Don’t flesh the opinion into an extreme viewpoint, especially not for the purpose of tearing it down immediately.

One can only partially make up for what is lost without face-to-face interaction. There is often judgement exercised regarding what one leaves in and what one leaves out when writing.

i prefer to call it metaception arguingception

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Is there a need to add something about logic? It is embedded in point #4, but would it be helpful to tease it out?

Something like: Try to inderstamd the facts and logic underlying their points, and attempt to explain those underlying yours without malice(obviously the wording needa aome retooling).

Many of the most effective teachers at our school’s Parent- Teacher conferences all have the same mantra. Lead with the data. It works well in that situation which is arguably one of the more tenuous one can get into.

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Definitely agree that, in any productive discussion, there’s a need to establish and explore underlying facts and logic that led to the contended conclusion. There may be some nuances to where this should fall in the “normal” sequence of a debate (ie, can you truly “disagree” before all facts have been established?). But, it’ll be present in the discussion none the less.

Barron speaks to this in his video. He states that the argument should not two parties pitted in an “intellectual boxing ring”. Rather, it should be two parties ardently in search of a third - the truth. This joint passion for truth should lead down paths of logic to find a common core, or at least uncover the deeper differences that exist. Doing so will inherently pull out the logical underpinnings (or lack there of) of the opposing positions.

Related, and worth noting on this topic: I don’t believe logic itself is the real thing that changes people’s minds. The conclusion I’ve come to, at least at this point in my life: All human decisions are feelings-based.

Logic and numbers are really good ways of convincing most people that the decision is “correct” or “incorrect”, but they don’t do so directly. Rather, they serve to reinforce the feeling that leads to the decision. For most folks, they’ll delay a decision until there’s enough data for them to feel like they can make the choice with confidence. However, some folks will skip right over this step, because they feel confident in their answer, or don’t value the logic as much.

TL;DR Logic is a good way to help adjust peoples’ feelings on topics, and should be a part of any good debate. It might not work on everybody, though.

Side Note

Barron actually uses even stronger wording - that the two in the argument are “in love with” the truth. For better or worse I watered down this verbiage in an attempt to keep focus on the principles themselves without spinning off into a discussion on the meaning of “love” in this context. Which, though worthy of discussion, wasn’t why I made the thread.

But, especially if you apply some flavor of the Christian definition of love (Usually, “To will the good of the other”), his phrasing carries even more meaning than what I relayed.


I concur. You bring up some excellent points.

I feel leading with the data also allows people to separate their feelings from the debate (as much as possible). This is where this practice is especially helpful in teaching. It is not, “I disagree with or have a problem with you.” It is more like “There is a problem, let us solve it together.” Which gets both to the love aspect and the “Two parties coming together to create a third.” That is the point right?

P.S. Thank you for this thread. I feel it comes at a perfect time.

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One of my favorite books on Web Design – Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think – calls this “satisficing” (a portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice"). Basically when people need to make a decision they generally don’t analyze until they find THE BEST option – they pick the first plausible option (“this one feels right”).


Most people don’t buy products. They buy stories.

That’s why Edison was more successful than Tesla. He told better stories.

Engineers sometimes think we are exceptions to this principle, and often we are – at least in our own buying habits. But the products of our work are no exception; they will not sell themselves. Sometimes our best course is simply striving to make the stories told (usually in advance) about our products come true.

Selling is important. That’s why we have Judges in FRC. Competition alone will find the best product, eventually, but that process sometimes requires more time than our events allow.

Back to the OP: this is a great thread! So far, my favorite excerpt is this one:


This thread…

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There is a concept called the “steel man argument” (not entirely sure where it came from) that is an interesting technique for a debate. Instead of starting with the normal “straw man argument”, you need to present your opponents argument (regardless of whether you agree with it or not) in a way that your opponent deems accurate. From there, you can offer a critique of their position and present alternate propositions. At least you (hopefully) start from the same place and your discussion is directed at each other’s actual positions, rather than just talking loud past each other.