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We Should Teach Kids—and Adults—the Art of Arguing

Conflict can be good, but you have to know how to do it right

Recently, I found myself on Facebook arguing with one of those people. You know those people: They pretend to want to engage in a “debate,” but the only correct answer is their infallible opinion. This person wrote something about how George H. Bush groping a handful of women wasn’t really worth getting upset about because it’s not rape; I responded that no, it’s not rape, but groping and unwanted touching is still sexual harassment. “Wow!” she exclaimed in reply. “Goes to show what I get when I try to engage in some debate online! I won’t make this mistake again!” She then deleted her comments and, as a result, my replies — taking her toys and my sandbox. You’d think I went directly to her house to insult her mother’s cooking.

But imagine if we’d “argued as if we were right, but listened as if we were wrong.” That is the central point of a New York Times op-ed by Adam Grant about how avoiding conflict and debate and argument actually stymies critical thinking and creativity. The Wright brothers argued for weeks over a propeller design, he notes. It’s not that they didn’t get all worked up — they even shouted. It’s that they never got so irrationally mad that they called the whole thing off, and as a result, we have planes.

Grant cites numerous examples that prove that tension-filled families produce more creative thinkers, and that friction, debate and even differing values can lead to better, more rigorous thinking. “The skill to get hot without getting mad — to have a good argument that doesn’t become personal — is critical in life,” Grant writes. “But it’s one that few parents teach to their children. We want to give kids a stable home, so we stop siblings from quarreling and we have our own arguments behind closed doors. Yet if kids never get exposed to disagreement, we’ll end up limiting their creativity.”

Why? Grant argues that groupthink leads to silenced voices, and silenced voices can lead to war. We teach college students that some ideas are so bad they can’t even be heard, much less parsed. Add to this that polite society dictates that debate is bad etiquette: Every Thanksgiving guide you’ll read will tell you how not to engage in fruitless arguments by avoiding discussing politics at the dinner table altogether.

“We should know better,” Grant says. “Our legal system is based on the idea that arguments are necessary for justice. For our society to remain free and open, kids need to learn the value of open disagreement.”

So do adults. But as a result of never being taught such skills, we are a nation of bad arguers. Who can blame us? We aren’t taught debate skills from an early age unless we elect to join the debate team (and only nerds do that, right?). We don’t see true debate in this country; political debate is merely character assassination and a gross oversimplification of issues masquerading as an interplay of ideas. And the internet is a cesspool echo chamber that wouldn’t know real debate from its own digital ass.

Workplaces are hardly better. As Grant notes, brainstorming is designed so that we never shoot down a bad idea, so that everyone feels safe to share them. To a point, a supportive environment is necessary for creativity, but without the same support to criticize shoddy ideas, how are they ever whittled into something sound?

Kids who can’t resolve conflict turn into adults who can’t resolve conflict, and to know them is to despise them. They become grownups so conflict-avoidant that you never actually know what they really think. Or worse, they fall apart when anything is wrong, because they’ve been taught that all conflict is bad. Or you end up with someone who is game to argue, but so bad at hashing it out that everything becomes a personal, emotional attack. All roads lead to the same bleak conclusion: Disagreeing is bad. It’s much better to repress and keep things pleasant.

This extends to romantic relationships. People brag about having relationships where they never fight, but therapists have long advised that couples who never fight are nothing to emulate. It’s not avoiding fighting that counts, but rather learning how to fight fair. (There are good fighting rules for work teams, too.) And no, it doesn’t mean that you have to fight, or that fighting all the time is good. It just means no one is going to die over a little disagreement. Handling your differences with real skill will actually look more like thoughtful disagreement than a fight, anyway.

In the corporate and military world, it’s called red-teaming — hiring a group of experts specifically to come in and poke holes in your ideas for the sheer purpose of finding the weakness. It could be Apple hiring a hacker to break into its own mainframe; it could be the Navy defeating its own sub. The point is that good ideas stand up to rigor; bad ones crumble immediately.

On a high school debate team, you might argue for euthanasia, then have to turn around and argue against it. Having to simply think through the other side, even when you completely disagree with it, is a mind-expanding skill that will change how you think of debate forever. Why isn’t it mandatory?

Thoughtful disagreement should be taught along with the battery of soft skills we call emotional intelligence, which includes being able to communicate well, think critically, and solve problems with other people. But many workplaces actively attempt to quash all disagreement, in spite of research that shows that, as David Burkus writes at 99U, that conflict on teams is a good thing when it comes to creativity. “If everyone on a team is always in agreement,” he writes, ”it can mean that they don’t have very many ideas, or that the team values cohesiveness and lack of conflict more than generating and evaluating ideas.”

Teams who debate, according to research he cites, produce 25 percent more ideas than those who don’t. Of course, facts won’t change the fact that debating still feels very bad to many people, as my Facebook pal demonstrated perfectly. It’s much easier to storm off in a huff. That’s too bad, because if we could all let our ideas take a little heat — if we could follow Grant’s suggestion to argue like you’re right, but listen like you’re wrong — maybe we could generate something less like hostility and more like understanding.