“Can you win an argument?”

I live in a low-income neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and every so often I am awakened – literally wakened as if by an alarm – by two individuals facing each other in the street, or on the sidewalk, or one person standing on her porch while the other is on the sidewalk – arguing as loudly as voices can project.

I stand by – with cell phone in hand – ready to call 9-1-1 in case it turns violent.  The confrontation does NOT go back & forth.  There IS not even an attempt at dialogue.  Rather, it is simply loud against loud – both going full-tilt simultaneously – and, again, all of this unashamedly outdoors.

The spectacle is hard to watch, hard to listen to – adults acting like kids.  “Acting” may be the wrong word.  They are NOT acting.  They are kids — emotionally, they ARE kids!  In all of their years, they have never learned the art of argument.  To them, it’s simply loud vs. loud.

Watching all of this, I find it’s easy to feel superior.  It’s easy to feel stirrings of racism – because this is happening in a black neighborhood.

That observation, however, would indeed be racial, and it would indeed be wrong.  The world is bigger than this neighborhood – and a lot more like it than unlike it.

I only have to think back to growing up in my Italian-Catholic community in Western Pennsylvania.  Loud didn’t just meet loud — it could become violent.  I still remember gaping in disbelief as an 8th Grader on the bench of my Catholic grade-school basketball team, watching our coach in the back & forth of an argument with the referee suddenly lurch forward and grab him by the throat.  It took two assistant coaches and several adult by-standers to pull him off.

And the higher-income, cultured set needn’t feel superior, either.  Just because they may prefer to conduct their clashes in a more subdued way where nobody can see them – the same thing happens.  Argument occurs – argument fails.

Truth be told, I must put myself in the same setting as all of the others.  I can think of times when – as a pastor – I met with a church member, and the conversation went downhill so quickly, the situation became irredeemable.

What is the problem?

Deep down, the problem is – self-justification.  Everybody wants to feel they are “right.”

And we may BE right.  But we may still miss the point.  Being right is not how to win an argument!

We must remember that the other person is as determined as we ourselves are.  The urge towards self-justification is one of the deepest of our human nature.  Thus, in any discussion, thinking we can win an argument is our first mistake.  The other person isn’t going to cave in any more than you yourself are going to.  It feels too much like “losing.”  We become instant John Paul Joneses.  No matter how much our ship seems to be sinking, we have no intention of surrendering.

How then do we do this?  What goes into the art of argument?

I have found three pole stars.

A minister friend of mine told me that she once met “Mister Rogers” one Sunday morning at a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh.  Fred Rogers himself was a Presbyterian minister.  His “ministry” was television for children.  Since he didn’t have his own congregation (aside from millions of kids), he would attend a Presbyterian church as a congregant.  Indeed, he could be found volunteering in the child-care room.  This one Sunday morning, my friend watched as somebody went up to Fred Rogers to converse with him.  My friend later told me, she was amazed at how Mister Rogers paid such close attention to this stranger who had gone up to speak with him.

I had something of a similar experience.  When I was a student at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I did an internship at the nearby Shadyside Hospital as a chaplain.  One evening, I was waiting outside of an elevator when who walked into view but Mister Rogers.  He was looking confusedly at a little piece of paper, obviously trying to figure out the directions somebody had given him in order to find the room of a patient.  I went up to him and quietly said, “Can I help you, Mister Rogers?”

He instantly looked up from the piece of paper and smiled.  We went into the elevator together and had a short time to converse.

TEN years later, I was in a line at LaGuardia.  I had been travelling in the East, researching a book, and was now catching a flight back to Wisconsin, where I had my first congregation.  In line, I recognized the person in front of me even from behind.  I leaned forward and said quietly, “Hello, Mister Rogers.”  He instantly turned and looked at me full in the face and smiled.  I said, “We met a long time ago.”

He replied, “YES – I remember your face!”

I have long doubted that!  I thought he was just being polite.  But ever since hearing from my minister friend about her occasion with Mister Rogers in a church one Sunday morning, I have come to believe it.  Mister Rogers really could do this – remember a face ten years later.  My minister friend told me, she watched Fred Rogers when this stranger went  up to him in the child-care room at the church.  She later herself talked with Mister Rogers (they knew each other), and marveled at how closely he paid attention to the person who had come up to him.

Fred Rogers replied, THAT was something he had resolved to improve himself on – paying attention to somebody that wanted to speak with him.

It is NOT an easy thing to do in a setting like a child-care room, where there are so many distractions, or even upstairs in the church proper, where there are so many people moving around.  Nor is it an easy thing to do for someone as busy as Fred Rogers surely was – with all of the demands on his time.

And so – he told my minister friend – he had resolved to work all the more diligently at this matter:  to pay complete attention to whomever he was talking to.  After hearing that, I began believing – yes, it might be that he really did pay so much attention to me the first time we met, maybe he really did remember me the second time we met even though it was ten years later.

THAT is the first “rule” I try to follow whenever I have a face-to-face encounter.  Pay complete attention to the person before you.  For one thing, it pays that person the compliment of your full attention.  I have had occasions when I was talking to somebody in their office, and they were trying both to continue writing notes about some other matter while talking with me.  It doesn’t feel good.  It feels as if you’re not worth the other person’s complete attention.

I’m afraid I have done the same to others.  Stealing a glance down at your sermon manuscript while trying to converse with somebody feels futile – you can’t do either well.

A journalist friend of mine said that whenever he used to go to the desk of an editor to ask about something, the editor would take the draft of the article he was reading, and would turn it over, placing the copy face-down before him.  In this way, he could give full attention to the person before him.

This is my first guiding light in any face-to-face encounter.  PAY COMPLETE ATTENTION to whomever is before you.  It is, for one thing, a compliment.  It is, for another thing, necessary for discussion.  Listening carefully to what the other person says – rather than being so eager to jump in with one’s own comments – you have a better chance of truly hearing the other’s concerns.  Any nurse or doctor knows that listening carefully to a patient, you may pick up the “side” remark that turns out to be the patient’s deepest worry.  A good listener will hold still and pay attention to catch such things.

Perhaps the best instructor in the art of listening was the famed psychologist Carl Rogers.  In his book On Being A Person, Carl Rogers gave this guideline for listening:  Whenever somebody says something to you, rather than quickly, eagerly replying in order to defend yourself or press your point in a discussion, hold still and repeat the other person’s remark!  And don’t proceed until the other person is satisfied that you have understood what they have said.

It is incredibly hard to do – because we must fight back our own urge to speak up for ourselves.  But it is incredibly rewarding.  The whole encounter takes on a tone of respect and patience.  I’ve seen OTHERS do it, and it has an immediately calming effect at a meeting.  Because the person speaking feels that one truly is being heard.

My second guiding light in any face-to-face encounter is:  Your chance of convincing somebody right at that very moment is low – if we have any understanding of human nature.  The person we’re talking to likes to feel one’s self to be “right” as much as we ourselves do.  Thus, the best we can do is to state our position without ramming it down somebody’s throat, because if they change their mind, it won’t be right there in front of you — it’ll be much later, in the privacy of their own thoughts.  In short, during any argument, expect not instant success — expect that if anything happens at all, it’ll happen later.  A person must be given the dignity of retreating without being harassed.

Thirdly, these two things — paying the compliment of full attention to somebody, and not expecting to “conquer” them right then & there but allowing them to retreat – set the entire tone of one’s voice and conduct during the meeting.

A song began entering church circles in the late 1960s.  It was written in 1968 by a priest named Peter Scholtes (who later left the priesthood to become a full-time counselor and author).  It’s called They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love. The song has a line that goes:  “And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.”  THAT line I try to remember in any encounter I have with another person.

No argument is ever won by being nasty.  Arguments are rarely won in the moment they are occurring.  Too much of human nature stands in the way.  Nobody wants to yield before another.  At best, we can hope that a person later on changes one’s thinking.  For that to happen, we must allow somebody the dignity of retreating without being harried.

Getting louder and louder accomplishes nothing.  Being eager to score a point accomplishes nothing.  The very abruptness feels by the other person like getting spiked with a volleyball.

There is a person at the other end of all that we say and how we say it.  If I can enter into a discussion with the goal of “guarding each one’s dignity and saving each one’s pride,” I will have felt that I did the best I could for myself and for the other.





guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride

hurrying to score a point

there is no winning an argument – at best, you give someone something to think about and let them retreat to their own private thoughts.



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