A Leadership Lesson For All: Make Better Arguments

February 2, 2024  • John Peabody

The ability to resolve differences, find common ground, and move forward is central to any functioning relationship, community and democracy. Enter the Better Arguments Project, a partnership between the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, Allstate, and Facing History and Ourselves. 

The Better Arguments Project exists to help people find healthier, more constructive ways to disagree and exchange ideas. Applications for the spring 2024 cohort of the Better Arguments Ambassador Program are now open, and before they close on February 14th, we asked Erik Gross, Program Manager, Citizenship and American Identity Program, to tell us a little more about the work of the Better Arguments Project and why you should apply to the Ambassador Program.

First off, tell us why better arguments. I think many of us probably think of “argument” as a bad word, something we should avoid, but I’m guessing the Better Arguments Project has a good argument for why we can and should evolve this thinking.

As you can imagine, I’ve heard this point before and sometimes people ask “Why can’t it be called the ‘Better Conversations Project’?” but there is a very intentional reason why we are calling for arguments. In today’s divided America, there is a well-intentioned movement for “civility.” But too often, “civility” can be misunderstood as the mere absence of argumentation, or as brushing our differences under the rug. Instead, we want to point out that it is necessary and possible to find healthy, constructive ways to disagree and exchange ideas. In fact, I would go as far as to say that democracy relies on arguments – it is how we bring new ideas to bear, forge solutions, and come to truly understand each other. 

It’s widely challenging right now when it comes to being able to solve problems and find common ground. I think this is something a lot of us see. How critical is the ability to argue better with empathy for leaders today to break through this?  

I’m going to come back to that word of “understanding.” A meaningful argument, for me, is one where everyone involved is able to both listen and be heard. By doing so, we can help others to understand us and our viewpoints, come to appreciate how or why others – despite disagreeing with us – have come to their own conclusions, and, I’d argue, come to understand ourselves better. Often, we take our views or fundamental beliefs for granted, and it is only through having them challenged – or having someone simply ask us “Why do you think that?” or “Why do you feel that way?” – that we come to really understand our key influences or inspirations. For leaders, the practice of listening and engaging meaningfully with different perspectives can help them build trust within their community, receive and give input, and ultimately make more informed decisions. 

Where did this idea for better arguments come from? Have we always disagreed so much?

Eric Liu, the founding Executive Director of the Citizenship and American Identity Program and CEO of Citizen University, made the case for Better Arguments in his November 2016 article in The Atlantic: “Americans Don’t Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing.” He makes the case that while, yes, we are living in a divided era in American politics and culture, that disagreement has always been central to American democracy. There are timeless debates, such as the tension between liberty and equality, our innate desire for individual autonomy versus our need for collective responsibility, or arguments for strong national government versus the merits of local control. The point of American civic life is not necessarily to resolve these debates or for one “side” to achieve final victory, but for us, collectively, to wrestle with these questions as we seek to forge a better tomorrow. 

What are a few practical tips or insights you can share with people and leaders who want to cultivate more positive outcomes from disagreements and arguments? 

We have learned so much from our community through their practical application of the Better Arguments approach. A few that come to mind are: 1. People have to want to engage meaningfully – to listen and learn from each other – for the argument to have positive outcomes. “Mandating dialogue” will not always work; try to encourage dialogue and highlight the benefits of engaging with each other. 2. Trust and human connection are deeply important. Spend some time establishing trust from your audience. If you choose to convene people to argue with each other, we often advise that you have people spend some time “just getting to know each other” and seeing each other’s humanity before diving into a potentially tenuous topic. And 3. Local context matters. There is no singular “blueprint” for how to have a better argument. Each interaction needs to be tailored to its unique context – an argument about the same topic may need to be approached very differently in two different communities. 

Finally, what’s the best way someone can get involved and be part of the program? 

We have several primary ways for people to engage. Firstly, we have a suite of resources that people can use to bring Better Arguments to specific contexts or use to reflect on their own. For example, we have a Better Arguments Middle and High School Curriculum, which educators can use to help students practice constructive and empathetic disagreement. Secondly, we host a regular series of webinar workshops. We have two primary types of workshops: Better Arguments 101, which is a one-hour introduction to the Better Arguments Project and perfect for newcomers, and Principles to Practice, which is a two-hour workshop where we take a deep dive into a specific aspect of the Better Arguments approach, such “Take Winning off the Table” or “Make Room to Transform.” Lastly, we have the Better Arguments Ambassador Program, a fellowship-style, action-oriented experience. Meeting weekly with a cohort of Ambassadors, participants delve deeply into the Better Arguments framework, reflect on their own values and views about civil discourse and engagement across divides, and craft “commitments of action” to address the state of dialogue in their respective communities or areas of focus. 


 Related Reading:

  1. Creating Space for Better Arguments in a Faith Community
  2. How to Have Better Arguments About Mental Health
  3. We Can Have Better Arguments Around Climate Change