How to (Respectfully) Disagree (Or How to Argue Effectively)

Over the course of my graduate and undergraduate career, I have been in a fair share of debates. After all, debate and discussion is at the heart of scientific inquiry. These debates can take many forms, including conversation and peer review (of course, I would be remiss not to refer to reviewer #2 here). I personally very much enjoy a stimulating debate or discussion, but the person with whom we are debating is often a rather larger determinant of how pleasant such a conversation can be, and make the difference between a productive conversation, or an unpleasantly adversarial duel. Below are some tips for how to make a discussion more productive, and to help you be a more effective duelling partner.

1) Make sure that you agree on definitions and terms.

I can’t tell you how many times skipping this step has gotten me into trouble. It’s absolutely crucial that you identify or operationalize what it is that you are talking about. In my field, scientists often use different words to describe similar phenomena, and often the same terms can mean different things to different researchers. Thus, a good starting point is to clarify terms and definitions, whether you’re in science, social sciences or the humanities. This also helps both sides to starting from the same place. It also helps you avoid wasting an hour of your time only to realize that both sides have been talking about closely-related but very different ideas or concepts.


2) Try to put your personal feelings aside. Sacrifice the ego to science (or truth).

It is understandable that we are likely to be highly invested in a perspective or a theory that we have either formulated ourselves or spent inordinate amounts of time studying. The fact that we’ve invested so much time and energy on an idea or a hypothesis already makes us more likely to defend it because, after all, why would you have spent so much time on it if it turned out to be wrong? (In psychology jargon, this is known as cognitive dissonance). The legendary Carl Sagan offers excellent advice on this front. “Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.” Sagan also suggests that you have more than one hypothesis; this will help to divide your loyalties and retain objectivity.  Personally, I also find it helpful to refocus my attention on the bigger picture, or the research question that I started with (i.e., what is it that I am trying to find out?), as I find it helps keep things in perspective.


3) Don’t be afraid to (respectfully) stand your ground.

Oftentimes (especially when I first started graduate school), when the discussion got tense or I got challenged (or a peer reviewer or supervisor criticized my work), my initial reaction was to back down or moderate my stance. Although this feels like a natural and reflexive thing to do when challenged by someone whom you respect, I felt like I was ultimately selling myself short. I often didn’t feel confident enough to return the challenge with a rebuttal (especially when talking to a senior graduate student or faculty member). However, over time, I’ve realized that just about any view can be challenged, and any reasonable viewpoint can be defended. It’s the nature of the game. It’s a reviewer’s job to point out holes in an argument and it’s faculty’s job to challenge us. Don’t be afraid to take some time to think things to formulate a well thought-out response.


4) If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t pretend that you do.

I’ve see this happen a lot during the question and answer period after someone gives a talk. If you don’t know the answer, don’t try to make something up. You will appear unconfident and lacking in integrity. Instead, don’t be afraid to admit that you’re unsure of something or that you don’t know the answer. Let the person know that it is a good question and that you’d be happy to look into it and get back to them. It’s certainly a lot better than giving an incorrect (or poor) response.


5) If all else fails, find a middle ground.

This one tends to be more suited for conversational debates. You may find yourself at odds with your debating partner on every angle. It is possible that this person may be adopting an irrational and impassioned stance, or he or she may clearly be ignoring the first two points of advice. For example, I arranged a meeting at a conference with a prominent scientist in my field in order to discuss some questions and potential criticisms about his work. It quickly became apparent that he was unconcerned with the things I had brought up owing to his background (he is a physician and didn’t have a strong background in foundations of hearing science research). Feeling like we were running in circles, I had to do two things. The first was to accept the fact that he wasn’t going to see things from my point of view. Thus, I accepted that there was little use in continuing the current line of conversation. Second, I shifted the focus of conversation to the larger context of the problem, which was something that we could agree on. Although this meant that we were no longer having a debate, at least we could continue some form of discussion and part ways amicably.


That’s my advice but I’d love to hear from you. What tips do you have for debating effectively in academia?



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One comment on “How to (Respectfully) Disagree (Or How to Argue Effectively)
  1. HI Rachel
    Great topic and great answers. I like how you gave alternatives to solving potential problems. I would be interested in hearing more from other students as whether you are debating in the open or having a conversation with your supervisor, you need to find ways to express your opinions but also keep an open mind.

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