Plato thought it one of the most important things to get right in life: how we have conversations, and indeed arguments, with the people to whom we are closest.

Our most significant conversations will usually have an element of ‘argument.’ This in itself is natural. By ‘argument’ here I simply mean a kind of friction in the opposition of thoughts or ideas. It should be no surprise that such opposition arises. Reality is complex, and people have different angles of insight. Add to this that communication of thoughts between people is always challenging. If we really want to get deeply into things, we have to be willing to ‘argue.’ That is, we have to do the hard work of making our thoughts known, and the harder work of trying to understand the thoughts of others.

Then there are further complications. What do we really seek in this conversation after all? We and our interlocutors can bring a miscellany of desires and emotional baggage. Hurt feelings, latent anger, a sense of insecurity, a fear of rejection, a need for affirmation, a desire to dominate or simply to appear smart or in control… and the list goes on. No wonder really good conversations about things that matter most are too rare. No wonder what could be fruitful friction turns combative and so arguments turn into fights.

But we can learn to do arguments better; we can learn to communicate ‘opposing views’ in such a way as to lead to the truth, and to bring us together. The difference between a bad argument and a good argument is profound. It can make all the difference in our most important relationships.

The Platonic Socrates in his ‘dialogue’ with Gorgias points us in the right direction by patterning key features of good conversation. Here is one that stands out (once again revealing Plato as a master of things human):

I’m asking questions so we can conduct an orderly discussion. It’s not you I’m after; it’s to prevent our getting in the habit of second guessing and snatching each other’s statements away ahead of time.

‘It’s not you I’m after.’ In other words, when I ask questions, or even raise objections, it’s not you I’m opposing. I’m after really understanding what you’re saying. This is necessary, both in order to discover the truth of reality, and the truth of where you stand. If we each ask and respond well, we can move together and come at least a bit closer to what we both want. The truth. And a better relationship.

This might seem a bridge too far. What if the other person isn’t really after the truth, or can’t really listen, and seems quite lacking in self-knowledge? Good question. As the wise remind us, good conversation is only possible with people of a certain character. We must be realistic.

Yet as always, we can begin with what is in our power. We might be surprised to find that at least some of our friends and loved ones are more capable than we thought, if we but lead the way and approach our conversations differently. How powerful it will be when the questions I ask truly do stem from an approach like Socrates’.

How much better might be an ‘argument’ I have today, if I choose to put my heart where it should be, and then I seek to have each aspect of my speech reflect that. Surely, this is the project of a life-time. And I’ll have an opportunity to get started today. ~ ~ ~


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