6 Simple Methods to Turn Toxic Arguments into Healthy Discussions

A lot is going on in the world right now, and many people seem to have lost their minds. So many divisive issues make it feel like healthy discussions are somehow out of the question at this point.

The plot twist is that I could have made this statement at practically any point in modern history, and you’d still be nodding your head in concerned agreement. 

Regardless of beliefs or affiliations, most of us honestly want to help improve our world. And naturally, we each have more than enough emotions wrapped up in it all. These emotions are good; they’re supposed to be there. But without proper tactics, we’re bound to let feelings take over, cause further pain, and push each other further away.

But we can fix it. We need to take all this emotion and channel it into productive discussions.

So without further pontification (this is a lie), let’s jump right in and start learning how to separate toxic arguments from healthy discussions. Only then will we be ready to save the world.

1. From Competition to Cooperation

In arguments, both parties set out to win. Through a combination of facts, emotional plays, and sheer force of will, each arguer attempts to “defeat” the other by crushing their argument (or, in some cases, spirit). A disagreement like this concludes in one of two ways. Either: 

  • One arguer “wins” and achieves a superficial sort of vindication while the other slumps in defeat, OR 
  • Neither party agrees, and both walk away frustrated and resentful. 

In other words, either one person loses, or they both do.

In healthy discussions, nobody loses because there is no one trying to “beat” them. The whole objective is different. Both parties set out to reach a mutual understanding. 

The outcome could be one person coming around to the other’s side or vice versa. Both parties will likely realize they had gaps in their understanding and come away stronger for addressing them. Healthy debate has very little use for absolutes, and real-world outcomes are rarely binary.

How to Fix It

  • Stop trying to “win”: if either party walks away feeling crushed and angry, then you have both lost
  • Be cooperative: act like it is your shared objective to find common ground

2. Trading Superiority for Empathy

We’re living in something of a renaissance for ideas that are simultaneously both wildly popular and wildly unpopular.

For instance, take any firm belief that you hold, whether personal, political, spiritual or otherwise. There are most likely millions of people who agree with you and wonder why we can’t all see it that way. But, at the same time, there are probably just as many who find that idea not just objectionable but utterly unfounded and morally reprehensible.

Each of us comes from a unique background. Our beliefs derive from a distinct set of cultural influences, individual quirks, and life experiences.

The true challenge is to lead with empathy and understand not just the other side’s argument but how they arrived there and why they feel that way. Because underneath is where the true difference often lies.

How to Fix It

  • It’s not for you to unpack everyone’s baggage, but keep in mind that there is usually more behind a person’s feelings and beliefs than what you can see on the surface.
  • No matter how sure you are that another person is wrong, never try to humiliate or denigrate their belief; build a bridge between you and make it accessible to cross.
  • Ask more questions. Try to figure out why, at the deepest level, you feel differently from someone else before trying to change their mind; don’t work from assumptions.

3. Unification, Not Polarization

Have you ever bullied someone until they became your friend? Or scared someone into loving you? Here’s another: have you ever humiliated someone into respecting you? If not, as I’m guessing is the case, then why should any of us expect to be able to bludgeon someone into agreeing with us through the force of our arguments?

When you try to change someone’s opinion by positioning yourself above them, rather than trying to understand them, then you’ll only ever push them further away from you.

If you want to change someone’s mind, open their eyes, or win them over, start by getting on their level and trying to understand where they’re coming from. When you do that, you’re likely to gain a new perspective or spot gaps in your understanding. Be ready to embrace that, too. There’s far more self-respect in learning than in being the loudest.

If you try to crush your counterpart’s argument and drag them to your side, you will always push them away. But if you try to understand the person and encourage them to do the same for you, you will most likely take steps toward somewhere new.

How to Fix It

  • Shift your goals: ending up in the same (or at least a closer) place with your counterpart is a more valuable goal than yanking them over to your side; where else in life is your goal to end exactly where you started?
  • Realize that sometimes you will reach the point of shared understanding and still have different opinions based on the same facts. It’s okay to treat this as an acceptable outcome.

4. Attacking the Issue vs. Attacking the Person

I heard a piece of advice a long time ago, and I’ve found it to impact countless interactions positively. The suggestion was this: When you’re having a difficult conversation, always attack the issue. Never attack the other person.

Difficult conversations almost always evoke strong emotions. Successfully navigating such a conversation necessitates both parties working to de-escalate the emotional tension and diverting their resources to resolving the issue that caused the feelings.

And this ties back to the previous point: polarization. If you want to win someone over, you’ll be charging up a steep hill covered in grease if you think you can do it by attacking them.

How to Fix It

  • Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements – e.g., “I heard this…” is much more effective than “You said this…” at clearing up differences and easing tension.
  • Avoid broad statements or generalizations about the other person’s character; these are often inflammatory and usually unhelpful to the issue at hand.

5. The Difference Between Knowledge and Intelligence

Being, acting, thinking, and working “smart” can mean many things. However, when separating healthy discussions from unhealthy arguments, there are two specific types of “smarts” that we need to understand. For clarity, I will refer to them as “knowledge” and “intelligence.”

  • Knowledge: The things that you know. Facts and information that you can bring up in conversation and use to back up your claims. 
  • Intelligence: How you process, examine and interpret information. You could also call it critical thinking.

Knowledge is an essential building block of healthy conversation. Without tangible facts, emotional thoughts and opinions will be running the show, and we don’t want that. However, leaning too heavily on knowledge to make a point pushes toward superiority and furthers polarization. We all must use our intelligence as well, not just to critically process the knowledge on the table but also to know when offering up more facts and figures isn’t what’s missing from the debate. 

There is rarely a shortage, particularly in the 21st century, of facts and figures to support any opinion in a debate. And calling back to point #2, facts and figures are rarely what’s missing from healthy discussions. What is missing is empathy.

Contrary to popular belief, healthy debate is not about crushing your counterpart with your vast library of knowledge. Instead, intelligent debate is a joint effort to explore and evaluate two conflicting baskets of information and opinion.

How to Fix It

  • Bolster your points with evidence, but refrain from inundating people with facts and information; less is more.
  • Do NOT directly attack the information that others offer; no matter how invalid it looks to you, that will not help. Find another route to guide them to see your perspective. 

6. Moving From a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset

The way of thinking that leads to toxic arguments is brittle. Disputes can only happen when both parties come in convinced that they are now, always have been, and always will be correct. And remember from point #1 that a win-lose dynamic gets you nowhere.

It’s so easy to feel like you are totally right, and the other person is totally wrong. And maybe that’s true. But the reality is usually far from binary. We all have something left to learn or a new perspective still to see.

Even while trying to influence someone else’s opinion or understanding, you will still always have room to grow. That is the beauty of it. By letting go of a need to validate whether you were “right” or “wrong,” you open yourself up to the possibility to learn, maintain an open mind, and, no matter the outcome, develop a deeper and more rounded understanding of the issue. 

Judge yourself not by the veracity of your starting beliefs but by the flexibility and open-mindedness with which you express them, challenge them, and contrast them with those of others.

When you cultivate a spirit of growth through healthy discussions, others are sure to follow. So turn away from the fixed mindset, and say yes to growth.

How to Fix It

  • Try not to end a conversation exactly as you came into it. Even if your basic stance remains, there’s always something new to learn or a new detail to consider.
  • Be wrong; When you discover or realize something new, own it. There’s no shame in learning; the only shame is in trying not to learn
  • Support others who take ownership of being wrong as well; encourage collaborative behavior, and people will be FAR more likely to collaborate

Let’s Save the World with Healthy Discussions

In times like these (which, again, you could sub out for pretty much any other times, and it still fits), we’d all do well to start having better healthy discussions. Emotions run high on complex issues. Working with our feelings is much more effective than trying to overpower them with logic and overwhelming erudition. Understanding is a path through conflicted waters. And it is most needed at times when it is hardest to achieve.

The improvements suggested in this list work best when embraced by all parties. However, you can only be responsible for yourself. Be a leader and model healthy discussions for those around you. Usually, others will enthusiastically follow that example. And even when they don’t, you’ll still be better off for your part if you act in a way that is open-minded, constructive, and worthy of self-respect.

I challenge you to get out there and have more healthy discussions. You have the power to reach people and to bring newfound attention to your beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be. It will not be easy, but the fun stuff so rarely is. Throw out insecurity and a desire to “win.” Replace them with respect, humility, and a willingness to hear and learn, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

1 thought on “6 Simple Methods to Turn Toxic Arguments into Healthy Discussions”

  1. “Agree to disagree” automatically popped into my head. So I thought, hmm, how about “the other” option – meet in the middle. We might arrive at different and maybe better outcomes rather than keeping the disagreement with us. The middle could be a far better launch point than the end zone. Thanks for prompting my deeper look.


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