Tips on Listening from The Joy of Argument by Albert Navarra, Esq.

Note: The following is a guest post by Graham Bodie, Ph.D., Chief Listening Officer at Listen First Project.

I recently finished The Joy of Argument: 91 Ways to Get More of What You Want, and Less of What You Don’t by Albert Navarra, Esq. The book is organized into 91 chapters, each presenting a pithy tip for enjoying argument and helping warn the reader against fallacies of logic. In general, the book does a nice job illustrating that good argument, like good listening, does not have to be particularly complex or reserved for trained professionals.

The Joy of Argument has one chapter explicitly devoted to listening. In that chapter, appropriately titled “Listen!” Navarra explains that:

“Arguing without listening is like flying without seeing. You won’t know where you need to go with your argument … Listening shows the other person you are open-minded, objective, sincere, compassionate, helpful, and trustworthy.”
—The Joy of Argument, p. 38

But what exactly is listening in the context of arguing? Although there is not an explicit definition found in the book, Navarra sprinkles tips on how to listen well during argument throughout his book. I would like to highlight four below.

1. Listening is not agreeing.

Although Navarra does not explicitly state a (dis)connection between listening and agreeing, it’s there. The fact is that argument is between people. Yes, we can argue with ourselves (or perhaps, more accurate, we have internal struggles about our own beliefs that we don’t always express). The temptation is to think that if you listen to someone—that is, allow the other person to lay out their arguments in a non-judgmental and open manner—that you are somehow condoning their behavior, as if allowing someone the courtesy to express their opinion (grounded in facts hopefully) is the same as “giving them a platform.” Some would argue that there are issues so incontrovertible that to allow for the expression of alternative points of view would be a disservice to society and perhaps persuade “unthinking” individuals toward the “wrong” stance on those issues. But the notion that listening is not agreeing means that just because you entertain particular arguments does not mean that you agree with those arguments or even that you think they have any merit at all.

One reason to listen to “strange” or “ill-founded” arguments is to get them out in the open and make a strong case for why taking that stance is not only wrong but problematic or caustic. Zachary R. Wood made a similar point in his 2018 Ted Talk:

“In 2016, I invited John Derbyshire as well as Charles Murray to speak at my school, knowing full well that I would be giving a platform and attention for ideas that I despised and rejected. But this is just a further evolution of a journey of uncomfortable learning throughout my life.”

Mr. Wood continued in his talk to tell stories involving conversations with his mother about affirmative action, an issue she supported but also one that she understood as “controversial” and that “had a long history.” In conversations such as these, Mr. Wood learned to “never just write off opinions that I disagreed with or disliked, because there was always something to learn from the perspectives of others, even when doing so might be difficult.”

Perhaps the only alternative to listening is assuming, and you know what they say about assuming. Several things happen when we shut off alternative points of view, sticking to our own filter bubbles and ignoring other ways of thinking. One consequence is that we begin to stereotype the other side, believing things about “those people” who believe “those things” and ultimately shutting down the possibility for conversation.

Another aspect of assuming covered in The Joy of Argument happens when we base our beliefs more on the person than on the arguments. For instance, in the chapter “Challenge Authorities,” Navarra reminds readers to stay focused on the merits of an expert’s testimony rather than mesmerized by her fancy language or his list of degrees. The power of authority is backed by research that has shown something as simple as a white lab coat can influence people into making decisions that seem misguided at best and morally questionable at worst (see the Milgram Experiment and this article on its implications today). When we stay attuned to the argument, we begin to understand how others think, something that Zachary R. Wood claims as quite powerful for finding “common ground, if not with the speakers themselves, then with the audiences they may attract or indoctrinate” as well as coming to “a deeper understanding of our own beliefs” while “[preserving] the ability to solve problems.” And isn’t that the point of arguing in the first place, to solve problems?

2. If you listen, you might just learn something (open-minded).

Choosing to listen, and avoiding the alternative posture of assuming, means that you should come to arguments with an open mind. In his chapter “Win at Any Cost?” Navarra reminds readers that, contrary to popular belief, the purpose of argument is not always to win. Sure, there are times, as Navarra points out, that you might be paid to argue a particular claim or point of view; but even in these cases, if you are wrong, well … you are wrong.

A reoccurring theme found in The Joy of Argument is that facts, reason, logic, and evidence should lead the way in argument. Various chapters remind the reader to avoid getting too emotional, and Navarra covers classic fallacies of argument such as argument from tradition (what has been should always be) and hasty generalization (what is generally true is true in this case), thus pointing readers to the need to be grounded in what is rather than how you want things to be.

In one chapter, for instance, Navarra appeals several times to think about the issue from, as the chapter is titled, the “other side of the coin.” By considering the argument from “the other side” you open yourself to learning more—not only might you learn something about your own position but you might also have what he calls a “second thought”—that is, you might become convinced through the activity of argument that your position is not the best one to hold.

And so what The Joy of Argument suggests about listening to, for, and within argument is that at its best, the practice of arguing is about learning: learning to be a better persuader, learning to be a better advocate, learning to be a better human.

3. To listen is to respect

Closely related to having an open mind is being respectful of the person behind the position. Several organizations within the #ListenFirst Coalition stress the importance of establishing relationships with people who don’t see the world the same as you. Doing so not only opens us to new experiences, but it teaches us to respect others even when we differ on important issues.

The fact is that many of the things we argue about do not have simple or even uniform solutions. The world is complex, and answers to difficult questions will be aided when diverse people come together regardless of difference in a manner that respects the dignity of our shared humanity.

In a chapter that comes late in the book, “Stubbornness,” Navarra discusses the human tendency to be resistant to change. But even if you are not ready for change, you can be resistant in a respectful manner. A clear point that Navarra wants to make is that arguers should avoid, at all costs, attacking the person. He devotes several chapters to this virtue, highlighting the pitfalls of the logical fallacy known as ad hominem. When we attack the person and not the position, not only do we disrespect them, we also lose sight of our own point of view.

As Navarra points out in an early chapter, we should continually ask ourselves “What are we arguing about?” Chances are, we did not enter the argument to demean, defile, or otherwise disrespect the other person. To listen well sometimes means to respectfully disagree.

4. The words silent and listen have the same letters

In the chapter “Power of Pause,” Navarra writes:

Argument can … make powerful use of silence. If the other person does not agree with you after a good amount of argument, consider giving it a rest for a while … sometimes it’s not possible to overcome all obstacles in one discussion, or even several discussions. Some things take time. And if you keep hammering away you might just make the other person ‘dig in’ and take an even more defensive posture. You may also damage a relationship or potential relationship.
—The Joy of Argument, pp. 191-192

I love this piece of advice for several reasons. First, it highlights the importance of remembering what you are arguing for (and about). Is what you are arguing for worth the cost of the relationship you might damage? Is it worth making the other person feel like less of a person, unworthy because they disagree with you? Usually, the answer to both these questions is “no.” Second, it resonates with research on persuasion that confirms the processual nature of argument. According to a classic theory of persuasion, Social Judgment Theory, it is difficult, if not impossible, to shift another person to your exact opinion immediately. It takes more than one argument to bring people completely to your side, but what you can do is create incremental shifts in attitudes (or what this theory calls latitudes in recognition that any single belief is situated in a complex mix of other beliefs). Ultimately, argument is a process that takes time, patience, and a willingness to listen across divides.

When you listen, try being silent, giving the other person time to argue her case or yourself time to process that case. Give the other person time to understand what you are saying, to ask questions, and to dive deeper into the issue. Sometimes this “time” may be a few seconds or minutes, or maybe it takes a few days to fully process and come to an understanding. Don’t be afraid of asking for time and taking time to fully digest and attempt to understand another’s point of view.

Conclusion

Although there are several other lessons on listening you might get from reading Navarra’s Joy of Argument, these are the most resonant and in line with what we advocate at Listen First Project. By listening first to understand, we can mend our frayed social fabric, engaging others in conversations and potentially building the relationships across divides that our world so desperately needs. As Navarra points out, arguing is an inevitable part of life—we live it every day in our personal and professional lives, from what we should eat for breakfast to what type of mattress we should utilize as we rest our heads. In the words of Navarra, “Argument is part of life and worth doing well.” Listening is a big part of argument and worth the effort of doing well, as well.

Graham Bodie is an internationally recognized expert on listening and has published over 80 monographs, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries. Dr. Bodie’s work has been funded by the National Science Foundation and featured in the Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, and on National Public Radio. Dr. Bodie received his B.A. and M.A. in Communication from Auburn University and his Ph.D. from Purdue University. He is currently Professor of Integrated Marketing Communication at the University of Mississippi and the Chief Listening Officer of Listen First Project.

Listen First Project encourages conversations that prioritize understanding to bridge divides and mend our frayed social fabric. We catalyze the #ListenFirst movement powered by more than 150 partner organizations, thousands of individuals, National Conversation Project, and local chapters around the world. LFP focuses on society at large, schools, and workplaces while recognizing those who champion the Listen First mission.  For more advice and tips on listening, including the discovery of what type of listener you are, visit Listen First Project, follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or email graham@listenfirstproject.org.

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