Nope, a good argument isn't a contradiction in terms. Many of us view arguments as something to be avoided at all costs. Others see them as an opportunity to dominate exchanges and win heated debates. But whether you're too cold or too hot when it comes to fights, few of us get the balance right.

Jonathan Herring, a University of Oxford lawyer and author of How to Argue, thinks he can help. In the book, Herring shares what he's learned about transforming unproductive shouting matches (or passive-aggressive avoidance) into actually productive conversations that end with participants having a clearer understanding of each other's views. Getting better at arguing, he insists, is a skill that can be learned, and one that's extremely handy if you're a parent, in a relationship, or a boss looking to get the most out of debates with colleagues.

So what are the principles that can turn upsetting exchanges into valuable arguments? Blog Farnam Street recently dug through the book to extract 10 takeaways. Here are five to get you started.

1. Come prepared

"Before starting an argument," Herring writes, "think carefully about what it is you are arguing about and what it is you want. This may sound obvious. But it's critically important. What do you really want from this argument? Do you want the other person to just understand your point of view? Or are you seeking a tangible result? If it's a tangible result, you must ask yourself whether this result you have in mind is realistic and whether it's obtainable. If it's not realistic or obtainable, then a verbal battle might damage a valuable relationship." 

2. Craft your argument

Just don't storm into the living room (or conference room) and let fly with your feelings. Take the time to think about how to craft your message first. "Spend time thinking about how to present your argument. Body language, choice of words, and manner of speaking all affect how your argument will come across," Herring reminds readers.

3. Plan your counterpoints

The world would be a simpler place if everyone just listened to the facts and made rational decisions on the basis of them. But all of us have blind spots, preconceived notions, and emotionally touchy areas. Take into account what sort of argument is more likely to play well with the specific person you're arguing with.

"Think carefully about what arguments the other person will listen to," Herring writes. "What are their preconceptions? Which kinds of arguments do they find convincing?" If there is no way this person is going to change her mind about the essential facts, for instance, perhaps you'd do better by trying to convince her that other facts are simply more important.

4. Beware crafty tricks

Herring warns: "Arguments are not always as good as they first appear. Be wary of your opponent's use of statistics. Keep alert for distraction techniques such as personal attacks and red herrings. Look out for concealed questions and false choices." 

5. Be creative to resolve deadlock

Anyone who's ever been married can tell you that sometimes arguments arrive at a deadlock, and more talking usually just comes down to repeating the same positions over and over (usually with increasing levels of anger and frustration). The best arguers are skilled at thinking outside of the box to resolve these conversations stuck on repeat.

"Be creative in finding ways out of an argument that's going nowhere," Herring suggests. "Is it time to look at the issue from another angle? Are there ways of putting pressure on so that the other person has to agree with you? Is a compromise possible?" 

Published on: Oct 9, 2014