I found this list I wrote elsewhere, and thought, geez, everybody can use this!
I accumulated this knowledge through years of philosophy, religion and politics done in public settings, often with suits on; from having near-continuous fights with the crazy lawyer in my family; as well as through my extensive experience with husbands and the the world’s most ornery toddler. You can trust me here. ;)
These are general tips, equally applicable to school, dinner-table philosophy fights, relationship battles, and courtrooms. And of course, in all of those situations, the idea isn’t just to HAVE a civil argument, but to stand a chance at WINNING one, right? Right!
(By the way, my current favorite book on arguing is Today’s Wonderful Book. It looks cheesy on the outside, but it’s great advice from a trial attorney of 20+ years, very easy to read, applicable to much more than just law — and, surprisingly, very morally upright and cool. So if you like this topic, or want to be more of a badass when arguing with people, pick it up!)
Five Rules for How to have Civil Argument, or, How to Viciously Disagree Without Bloodshed.
1. NO Name-Calling. Sometimes this just takes brute strength on your part, but train yourself to either withhold all invectives, or to re-direct them away from the person you’re talking to. Personal attacks are NEVER allowed in a civil argument; in fact, they’re a really fast way to lose. If you’re the guy who attacked the other guy, you automatically lose in the eyes of all bystanders, including your opponent. You can’t win without credibility, and delivering personal attacks automatically makes you "the bad guy", the one who "took the cheap shot"; hence, your credibility is gone.
2. Keep your voice level. Not "low" necessarily, but level. Don’t get screechy or have outbursts. If your stress-level gets too high to say what you next want to say without losing control of your voice, change the subject briefly — make a joke, comment on how hot it is in the room, get a drink of water, whatever. How you talk is as important as what you say.
3. Be Pleasant. As pleasant as you possibly can. Notice how smiling little old ladies with Southern manners freaking always win the arguments they’re in — even if they have the weaker position, logically? Yeah, there’s a reason for that. Arguing is a test of composure as much as of wit and brains. The main trick to this is to remember that you’re not arguing against a person — you’re arguing against a person’s ideas. Be utterly vicious and calculating in your attack of those ideas — go for blood and don’t hold back. But use a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, because arguing professionally is like playing Operation; you need to achieve your goal without damaging the person in front of you. If you damage them, then your victory, IF you still achieve it (it gets a lot harder; see above) will be tasteless and cold, and not do much for you in the eyes of anyone who was watching. Do it with a smile, though — hell, act apologetic about giving the other guy the smackdown — and you’ll exit like a Gladiator.
4. Stay On-Topic. Except for making short detours to diffuse tension, stick with the one thing you’re arguing. (This is blisteringly important in personal and family battles!) Remember, you’re fighting ideas, not people. Don’t let yourself be dragged away from the Argument About Curfew into the Argument About Boys, or what have you — stick with what you need to show/prove/say in order to win this argument, and save the rest for later.
5. Don’t Lie. This goes again to credibility, but more than that, telling the truth is your only defense against really powerful attacks that are levelled against you — and there will be some. Word things carefully; don’t say "all" when you mean "most". Always assume that you’re "on record" when you’re arguing, since at the very least your opponent is going to do his or her level best to remember anything you said wrong and use it against you. If you don’t lie, however, then when someone comes back with the devastating counter-argument ("But it’s been shown that 80% of all homeless people who leave the shelter get sick from being out in the cold!") — then you can still fall back on the truth of what you’ve previously asserted ("That may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of homeless say that they’d prefer almost anything to being in the shelter."). This little dodge is probably the most effective way I’ve ever seen to handle a really strong attack on your argument.
…And those are the top five, but, if I had to offer an Overall Platitude, it’s to remember to Yield To Overcome. Arguing is like swordfighting; your footwork counts for a lot, and double-handed direct rush-attacks rarely work against anybody who knows what they’re doing. (Which emphatically includes kids! ;)