To Advance Free Software, Learn To Argue

Wed, 21 Oct 2015

I am sometimes asked how to convince somone to use free software. This article comes at the request of someone on how to do that well. (So yes - I do accept requests on topics. Please feel free to contact me if you'd like to see something.) Doing that is not always easy, and the best method and stragegy varies from case to case but one thing that I think will always help is learning to argue. Indeed, those that see me on IRC will sometimes see me trying to make a good argument for some particular point.

The ability to argue convincingly, to put one's point of view across clearly and convincingly, is not just a valuable asset; it is an essential life skill. If people are weak communicators, they're unlikely to make good lawyers, salespersons, managers, politicians, teachers, police officers, soldiers, negotiators, spokespersons, or mediators. Indeed, without a demonstrable ability for effective argument, many job applicants wouldn't get beyond the first interview.

By nature, some people are competent arguers and just need to fine-tune the skill. Most people, however, are not and need to develop the skill from scratch. That means becoming competent in four areas. The first three are critical thinking, emotional intelligence and argument formulation. The fourth is presentation, i.e. the ability to put forward an argument persuasively.

Critical thinking means being able to analyze a situation without letting personal biases influence judgment. That's more difficult than it may seem because preconceived ideas and ego influence most people's thinking, often without them being aware of it. Developing an open mind by letting those preconceptions go is the first step towards being an effective arguer. Only with an open mind can a person see all sides, adopt a balanced personal stance, and build an effective argument.

Emotional intelligence is closely related to critical thinking because it concerns overcoming biases and ego. More than that, however, it's about learning how to see things from other people's perspectives and developing empathy with them. It's a powerful skill that can turn another person's antagonistic attitude to one's benefit.

Argument formulation means being fully conversant with all sides of the issue. It means carefully studying the facts, considering the various points of view, arriving at a personal stance and then developing arguments to back it up, step by step. Occasionally, people have to build convincing arguments for points of view that are not their own and sometimes that they may not even agree with. Lawyers do it all the time in the courtroom, as do members of debating societies.

The fourth area, delivering an argument persuasively, only comes with practice. If the argument is to be made in person, for example, at a meeting, it's a good idea to compose the main points in writing as if it were a speech. For a speech to be effective, the elements must be in a logical sequence, and it's easier to see that sequence when it's written down. Repeatedly practicing a speech consigns the important points to memory. Most people don't have to make strictly formal speeches at meetings, but by preparing in this way, all the different arguments and responses can be practiced in advance and can easily be retrieved from memory when needed.

The basic ability to argue starts in early childhood. It may be crude and egocentric at the beginning, but it can be directed and nourished as you get older, and turned into a valuable life skill. Adults who didn't do that can still become effective arguers by concentrating on the four areas highlighted above. It may take a little more time and effort, but regardless of a person's age, it's never too late to start.