Whether it be trying to convince someone of a point or to simply understand their perspective which you may be lacking, it is important to really get down to the core of any argument. This is best done with a relentless line of questions until the formerly vague or seemingly unfounded point has revealed its base.
When someone makes a broad point, it is increasingly difficult to address directly because it may cover a number of areas or have a rather unclear underlying reason. The key is to bring that broad, high-level idea down to its low level roots. Everything has a reason, and it is your job to find it if you do not understand something or want to address it. Addressing the top will still leave the greater bottom undiscovered and unsolved.
Breaking It Down
Let’s take a look at an example:
Your acquaintance, Harold, makes the claim that, if someone cannot afford the degree outright, it only makes sense to take large student loans out to finance an expensive education. To this point, you generally disagree. Before daring to make a counterpoint, however, you must figure out on what Harold is basing his claim. As it typically goes with addressing arguments, the first question should almost always be “Why?” You might ask, why’s that? This is because it forces the other person to start logically breaking down their point and narrow the argument. The goal is to get to the more easily addressed root. Harold might respond: “Because it will give people the most opportunity to succeed.” You have made progress, but this reason is still rather broad and may be unfounded. Continue to break it down and figure out what Harold is basing it off of. “What makes you say that?” This is pretty much another way to say “why.” Harold might respond, “A college degree is necessary for success. Loans give everyone the opportunity to get a degree.”
Now you have broken it down into two base arguments for his one, greater argument. From here, you can address either one. You can A) figure out why Harold says college degree are “necessary” for success, or B) address the other opportunities to get degrees without loans, if you know of any. Let’s say you chose to go route B. “Harold, there are other ways to get a degree without loans.” He may respond with, “How?” or “No way!” You might explain how you or someone you know went to community college to mitigate the costs of getting an expensive degree for the first two years of school and then finished the degree somewhere else for nearly half price. You might also point out the wide array of students who work through their education and enroll in part-time programs. Of course, you might also note the availability or scholarships for students in financial need, which can further mitigate the costs of college. From there, Harold may object and say something like “no one” does that, so you might have to break down your example even further and show how it makes sense, and explain that it is simply an option. Even if it may not be a very popular approach for students in Harold’s eyes, it is a viable one for the purpose of addressing his claim. You could have also gone through route A. In this case, you would continue asking “why” Harold thinks that college is “necessary” for success, and keep breaking it down into an addressable point, just as it worked for route B. The conversation is one, sometimes big, growing flowchart.
It is important to not become overly adversarial, as the other person should not feel attacked or want to close off. Asking questions is a useful way to keep the ball in their court before you can make an informed opinion knowing on what it is they base their claim. It is typically far more effective than just locking horns right from the get go. It should not be viewed as a competition or as a fight. It should be viewed logically. You could get plenty of knowledge or a useful perspective out of their reasoning, after all.
Leaving things unquestioned (and thus unanswered) is a dangerous proposition. Everything should have some sort of logical root. Some may be significantly more challenging to get there, but they at least put you in a position to successfully address whatever it is that may be causing a disagreement or misunderstanding. If the person you are questioning offers a convincing reason, it can just as easily make you more informed and change your own position for the better.
So question on, folks. If something does not make sense to you, dig for an answer. A constant critical reevaluation of your own values is in order, too. Why do you believe the things that you do?