I was talking to a friend the other day about the nature of argument and how to argue well and it occured to me that I needed to take a step back and convince him that it was possible to argue well. Argument just seems like one of those things you do. You sit and you talk and you generally say the first thing that comes into your head. That argument would require training and skill is something which doesn’t appear immediately obvious at first grasp to people.

We seem to split up the list of personal qualities into skilled and intuitive. In the skilled category would be things building a house, playing a game of chess, arguing a case in court or solving math problems. On the intuitive side, we have things like having a good sense of humor, being co-ordinated, having the ability to draw well or coming up with good ideas.

The difference between the two is that we believe that to be good at skilled things is a process of mastery of certain skills which is relatively unmysterious. On the other hand, being good at intuitive things is something wholly mysterious that seems largely innate.

What’s interesting about argument is that it seems to have shifted from a skilled task to an intuitive one. In medieval times, rhetoric was part of the trivium, along with grammar and logic. People would spend 1/3rd of their university education solely on learning the art of arguing and people understood instinctively back then that you had to work to become a good arguer. Nowadays, rhetoric is a minor part of a minor department and argument seems like a purely intuitive process.

It seems to me a plausible explanation is that we rely on social signals to cue us in on what is skilled or not. Because we see people spend years learning to be a professional doctor but not learning to be professional arguers, we tend to believe one requires skill and the other does not.

So why am I going on about this? Because such a heuristic is imperfect at best and being aware of how it is flawed can help you gain an incredibly easy win over other people. By correctly identifying something as requiring skill, you can start to gain immediate improvements and, what’s more, others will believe that this improvement is innate and both be impressed with how good you are and not try and compete with you.

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  • http://twitter.com/mlovelyladylin 'Lin

    “Because we see people spend years learning to be a professional doctor but not learning to be professional arguers…”

    Then what do you call attorneys?

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