Arguments aren’t won with information; they’re resolved with rhetoric, the art of persuasion. In Thank You For Arguing, author Jay Heinrichs reveals the secrets to mastering rhetoric, identifying logical fallacies, getting what you want through persuasion and keeping arguments from turning into nasty fights.
This is part of Lifehacker’s book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we’ve decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life’s most important topics.
Jay Heinrichs was a journalist and publishing executive for 25 years before becoming a speaker, consultant and full-time teacher of rhetoric and linguistics to Fortune 500 companies, Ivy League universities, NASA and the Pentagon. Thank You For Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, And Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion was originally published in 2007 and has since been published in six different languages, as well as been used in college rhetoric courses. This review will focus on the revised edition, released in 2013.
Who This Book Is For
In the first chapter of this book, titled “Open Your Eyes”, Heinrichs walks you through a day in his life where he experiments with avoiding all forms of rhetoric, argument and persuasion. It doesn’t last very long because, as you learn, these things permeate almost every aspect of daily life. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, you’re making a case for the things you want and need. As Heinrichs explains throughout Thank You For Arguing, persuasion rules the world, and it’s a totally learnable skill.
If you want to be a more persuasive person in all aspects of life, this book is a great place to start. It will teach you to make arguments constructive, help you become a better speaker and presenter, and it will even help you be a better leader. Whether you’re someone who wants to learn how to stand their ground at work, or you’re a parent who wants to shut down your smart-alecky kid, you’ll find something of use here.
What You’ll Get
Thank You For Arguing has five main sections: Offence, Defence, Advanced Offence, Advanced Agreement plus an Appendix filled with example arguments, a glossary and a rundown of all the rhetoric tools the book goes over. The first section, Offence, gives 12 chapters-worth of advice on how to succeed in an argument, as well as what it means to truly “win” an argument. You’ll learn the basics of setting goals for your arguments, using the right tense for different types of arguments, making yourself seem more agreeable and likeable and gaining the high ground in a debate. Here are a couple examples of chapters in this section:
- In “Control the Tense” you’ll learn that all issues of persuasion boil down to three main issues: blame, values and choice. Identifying what category an argument falls into is important because you can’t meet your goals if you argue around the wrong core issue. If you’re arguing over who did what (blame), you should use the past tense. If you’re arguing over whether something is wrong or right (values), you should use the present tense. But if you’re arguing over a decision (choice), using the future tense is the most advantageous. It skips the who, what and the right or wrong, and focuses on how to reach agreement. If you want to keep an argument from becoming a fight, use the future tense. It promises a payoff.
- In “Make Them Listen” you’ll learn how to make your audience of one or 10,000 be more receptive, be more attentive and trust you more by adapting your character. Using Abraham Lincoln as an example, you’ll dive into the art of being heard — regardless of who you’re arguing with. You’ll learn how to have the right disposition, how to appeal to the values of others and how to show disinterest in your own argument so you seem unbiased. For example, you could never sway someone with extreme beliefs if you didn’t come across as understanding of their position, show respect for their underlying values and show them your perspective is better for everyone, not just you.
The second section, Defence, explains how to spot the major logical fallacies and when you should call someone out on it. It also covers how to defend yourself when you are caught using a logical fallacy. It has four chapters in total, including some of these examples:
- In “Spot Fallacies” you’ll learn to do just that. The chapter focuses on seven of the most common mistakes in arguments, or “seven deadly sins”, that are comprised of different logical fallacies: The false comparison, the bad example, ignorance as proof, the tautology, the false choice, the red herring and the wrong ending. Each “sin” is a mini-chapter filled with tips and examples so you always know what you’re dealing with.
- In “Call a Foul” you’ll learn the key to rhetorical defence: Remembering that the purpose of arguments is to be persuasive, not to be “correct”. You’ll also learn how to pick your battles when calling someone out, and to never argue the inarguable. Anything that keeps the argument from reaching a conclusion means nobody succeeds. The chapter explains that to keep things moving forward you have to maintain a level head and rely on rhetoric to persuade, not attack.
The Advanced Offence section covers more nuanced techniques that can be applied to the main skills you learn earlier in the book. These include using cleverness and wit to make an audience like you, using specific language to appeal to different audiences, handling screw-ups without apologising and using the right medium for your argument. The Advanced Agreement section, on the other hand, uses real life examples to show the best rhetorical practices in action. For example, in the chapter “Capture Your Audience”, Heinrichs does a play-by-play of a major speech from Barack Obama to demonstrate the keys of a persuasive and appealing argument. Basically, you get to see how what you’ve learned has been used in the real world.
One Trick You’ll Take Away
Tactically conceding points is the best trick you can have up your sleeve in any argument. People who don’t know how to argue will go for “points”, or try to be the most correct so they “win”. But as Heinrichs explains, you can get what you want out of an argument without winning. Using Aristotle’s approach to concession, you can nip an argument in the bud and save yourself a lot of grief, say, with a significant other:
When a spouse says, “We hardly ever go out anymore,” the wise mate does not spew examples of recent dates; he says, “That’s because I want you all to myself.” This response will at least buy him time to think up a credible change in tense: “But as a matter of fact, I was going to ask if you wanted to go to that new Korean restaurant.”
You concede their point, offer explanation and shift the argument into future tense, where Heinrichs suggests the most productive arguments happen. You may not win the argument, but you’ll be able to better manage your opponent’s emotions and keep the focus on solving the problem so a simple argument doesn’t become a throwdown.
This book is a mountain of information, and you’re definitely going to get plenty of bang for your buck. In fact, there’s so much to learn that without careful study or multiple readings, you’ll never be able to retain it all. I’m already diving back in to go over some of the sections once more. It’s the kind of book you keep on your bookshelf and re-read every now and again. And that’s a good thing because the lessons apply to many stages of life, whether you’re dealing with parents, friends, bosses, lovers or children.
Some folks might feel the rhetorical tactics in Thank You For Arguing border on manipulation, but they never cross that line. Heinrichs has demonstrative examples for everything from getting out of a speeding ticket to persuading a significant other to make love, but he doesn’t take any of them too seriously. As he explains, the point of rhetoric isn’t to make you a better or worse person, it’s to make you argue more effectively. And that’s what this book does, no doubt about it.
Heinrichs also finds a way to persuade you while you’re reading about persuasion, making the book tremendously fun to read. He even interjects with “Persuasion Alerts” when he’s using one of his many rhetorical tricks on you. Such a meta approach makes for great examples of what strong rhetoric looks like, and how well it actually works (I fell for it a number of times). The use of historical figures and pop culture references is also a major boon when Heinrichs is giving examples. You’ll get a kick out of learning advanced rhetoric from Abe Lincoln and Homer Simpson in the same chapter.
You can buy Thank You For Arguing, Revised and Updated Edition: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion in paperback for $20.17.