I’ve been waiting to post a review for Jonathan Herring’s book, How To Argue: Powerfully, Persuasively and Positively, for a few weeks now. I wanted to not only provide you with a recommendation to buy it, but since the content is so valuable, I also wanted to provide an example showing how I have applied the lessons learned from the book in my life. I would absolutely recommend that you add this title to your bookshelf, as it is rare that you read a book that completely reframes the way you think about something that you probably do every single day. That is exactly what this book did for me. Herring takes the ability to influence through debate and breaks it down into its component parts. The number of times that I have found myself referring back to his “10 Golden Rules of Argument” in everyday conversation has been well beyond any expectations that I had before reading the book.

One of the biggest reasons why I recommend this book is because of Herring’s perspective on arguing and influence. It isn’t about “experts” screaming at each other on a cable news network or politicians avoiding the issue in a debate before an election. Herring doesn’t expect you to ever walk away from an argument and have the other person say, “Ah, now I see how right you are and how wrong I was.” While that would be great for the ego, it isn’t realistic and it isn’t the goal. As the philosopher Karl Popper has stated, “The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” Success is moving the person you are talking with along a path to better understand your point of view.

To help you form better arguments, Herring crafted the “10 Golden Rules of Argument.” These rules look at debate from a variety of perspectives and take into account the attitude of the person you are trying to influence while considering your own preparation for the conversation as well. The rules are:

  1. Be Prepared: Before starting an argument think carefully about what it is you are arguing about and what it is you want to accomplish in the argument.
  2. When to argue, when to walk away: What specific conditions you are looking for before deciding to enter into or avoid a debate.
  3. What you say and how you say it: How to present an argument and who has to overcome the burden of proof.
  4. Listen and listen again: Knowing what the other person’s view and perspective are is the only way you can argue successfully.
  5. Excel at responding to arguments: How to counter someone else’s argument effectively.
  6. Watch out for crafty tricks: What tricks someone else might use against you to cause you to back down or undermine your argument.
  7. Develop the skills for arguing in public: In this chapter, Herring lists the things you should consider when you are debating with people in public settings.
  8. Be able to argue in writing: Taking debate from conversation into the written word.
  9. Be great at resolving deadlock: How to overcome the inevitable friction that will present itself and cause arguments to stall.
  10. Maintain relationships: What you need to consider before arguing with someone you will have an ongoing relationship with after the debate is over.

Each of these rules is the subject of its own chapter in Herring’s book. Within each chapter are numerous examples, topics, and applications that fall underneath the highlighted rule. While on the surface, some of the rules seem obvious; the level of detail that Herring goes into is extremely in depth.

The reason I waited a few weeks before posting this review is because I wanted to provide a concrete and real example to show the depth of Herring’s content. I wanted to wait for an opportunity where I could pull from his “Golden Rule #5 – How To Respond To Arguments,” since this chapter left such an impact on me. A couple of weeks ago, a website posted a very positive review of Left of Bang, which elicited a very negative comment from a poster who I will refer to as “Anonymous” since he didn’t leave his real name in his comment. Here is the comment from “Anonymous” referencing my co-author, Jason Riley, and myself:

“This is the influence on the Marine Corps of Obama and Clinton. Marines are created to kill people and break things. We should not be using our military as we have for the last few years. These officers are the type who do not understand that one drop of an Americans blood is worth more than the crap holes we have sent our Marines into. When it is time to turn loose the Marines everyone but the Marines should run or hide or die! Chesty Puller would spit on these officers, the rear echelon M****F****’s stay in the rear for a reason.

I do believe in situational awareness, but when the Marines attack there should only be targets, keep them off the streets of cities unless we are going to take that city. This is the type of PC crap that has gotten people wasted, use our armed forces for war and to protect this country.

If you have not learned combat situational awareness by the time you graduate from boot camp you will not live long in combat.”

The following breakdown is how we could use the lessons taught in Herring’s book to plan a response to the above comment. I learned from Herring’s book that there are two parts to an argument. There is the premise, which is the fact upon which it logically follows that there will be a particular conclusion, and there is the conclusion itself. To be effective in an argument, you need to start with some facts (a premise) that the other party will accept as true and then move to a conclusion that must logically flow from the premise. When it comes to responding to an argument, there are three ways to think about your counter to that argument. The three options are:

  • Challenge the facts upon which the other person is relying.
  • Challenge the conclusions that they are reaching.
  • Accept the point they have made, but argue that there are other points that outweigh what has been said.

When it comes to countering the above comment by Anonymous, we will use all three of these methods to show the weaknesses of his argument.

Deconstructing the First Argument

In the comment above, Anonymous’s premise in the first paragraph is that, “Marines are created to kill people and break things.” His conclusion stemming from that premise is that because Left of Bang is about identifying criminals, attackers and insurgents and not simply about more effective ways to kill them, that “Chesty Puller would spit on me.”

The first problem with Anonymous’s argument is that this conclusion doesn’t follow the premise. I happen to agree with his premise; I think that Marines should be held as our nation’s 9-1-1 force in readiness to deal with problems quickly and violently. However, that point has no bearing on the creation of the Combat Hunter Program. Herring refers to this argument method in Chapter 6 of his book (“Watch out for crafty tricks,”) and calls this a “Red Herring,” which is the introduction of completely irrelevant material. Anonymous’s conclusion is irrelevant because he has lumped into a single group those that give the orders and those that execute the orders.

Based on some cursory research that I conducted on Anonymous, I have learned that while he has read at least the first two amendments to the United States Constitution, he has failed to consider that in Article 2, Section 2, the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the American military. As a former Marine Officer, I swore an oath to, “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the officers appointed over me,” assuming that these orders are lawful. This oath comes from Title 10 of the U. S. Code; Act of May 5th, 1960. The law is pretty clear that the President declares war and the military executes it. Personally, I was disappointed that Anonymous, who is a Marine Veteran from the Vietnam War, failed to distinguish between those who wage war and those who fight it.  Even though no one asks the junior Marines and Soldiers who deploy whether they want to deploy or not, or whether how they would prefer to fight the war, they are still expected to fulfill their mission. To paraphrase Marine General Peter Pace, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, if you don’t have the ability to change the environment, you have to learn to operate more effectively within it. That is exactly why the Combat Hunter program was created, to give Marines the ability to succeed in any situation. Whether Marines should be fighting the war or whether the war is being fought in the way that Anonymous would like it to be, that has no bearing on Left of Bang or the Combat Hunter Program.

The second point worth noting from Anonymous’s opening paragraph is a technique that Herring refers to as “hostile association.” This is something that you want to be aware of in an argument and is the “form of an argument to cast doubt on a viewpoint because it is one held by disreputable people.” Take a look at Anonymous’s opening line, which references Presidents Obama and Clinton. For a little bit of context, the website where Anonymous posted his comment is one where the readers are going to have some very conservative views. Through the hostile association technique, Anonymous has created the opportunity to shift the argument away from the content of the book and into a political focus should anyone respond and dispute his “facts.” My opinion is that this is the approach that people take when the facts of their argument are weak or non-existent, and when they are looking for a way to bully their opponent into submission by connecting them to their “enemy.” This technique tries to force people into a corner of either being “with us or against us.” If this technique is used against you, remember that there are usually more options than one of these polar extremes, and separating the hostile association from underlying facts of the argument creates the opportunity to get past the ignorant attempt to bully you. If you notice a person attempting to incorporate the emotional elements of hostile association into an argument, continue to look for other weaknesses in their thought process. If the person is thoroughly prepared for the debate, have facts, logic and rational thought on their side, and understand the topic being debated from multiple perspectives, they wouldn’t have to resort to such a convenient attempt to cover their lack of preparation or understanding.

In How To Argue, Herring also helps teach you that, in an argument, you always want to be listening for people that the person you are arguing with respects and trusts. Identifying a person they revere can create the opportunity to use a powerful rebuttal if you are able to point out that their view goes against the views of the person they hold in high esteem. When Anonymous references Chesty Puller, he reveals someone he thinks highly of. If you were to be arguing with Anonymous, you could pose the question, “In the face of an increasing number of sniper attacks, ambushes and IEDs, would Chesty Puller accept a growing number of Marine casualties without looking for a better solution or more training?” If you believed that the attraction to Chesty Puller wasn’t just the name, but that he was known for being an aggressive warrior, perhaps the fact that the Combat Hunter Program was created by Marine General James Mattis would make him more receptive to your view. Since Anonymous’s opinion is that political correctness gets Marines killed, the fact that General Mattis is known for looking at a group of Iraqi leaders before entering Fallujah and saying, “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f**k with me, I’ll kill you all,” you could force him to see the weakness in his own point of view. As one of General Mattis’s two stated goals for Combat Hunter was to make Marines more safe by making them more lethal, we can look past his inaccurate second attempt at hostile association where Anonymous refers to a program created and taught by infantry Marines as being “rear echelon M****F****’s.” Similar to the opportunity created by identifying an attempt at hostile association, recognizing a person respected by the person you are arguing with allows you to identify points to argue, and in this case, realize that cursory research wasn’t done before entering the debate.

Avoiding Gaps in Your Argument

If you are interested in becoming a better debater and being more influential, you should also take a look at the second argument in Anonymous’s statement. I bring this up since it is a little harder to identify than the first argument, as, even though he states his premise, he doesn’t explicitly state his conclusion. The last line of Anonymous’s review is, “If you have not learned combat situational awareness by the time you graduate from boot camp, you will not live long in combat.” This is his premise for an unstated conclusion. Because the premise for an argument is supposed to logically flow into the conclusion, if you are going to offer a premise without a conclusion, you need to be 100% sure that your conclusion is the only possible option available. This is certainly and absolutely not the case in Anonymous’s argument.

Is it possible that Anonymous’s conclusion is that only those Marines and soldiers with an inherent skill in observing people deserve to live through combat? His stated “fact” said that if they didn’t have this skill, they would die. If you are looking for an actual fact, during the growing insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of Marines and soldiers getting killed was continuing to rise. Because Anonymous is a Marine veteran, I could assume that he isn’t suggesting that a survival of the fittest approach be taken, but I also can’t say with absolute certainty that he isn’t. For the members of the military and the American public who have sat through military funerals for our fallen brothers and sisters, I don’t know anyone who would simply accept the fact that Marines and soldiers either “have it or they don’t,” and that the military shouldn’t be doing something proactively to improve the survivability of our troops. That is absolutely unacceptable to me. That is the point of Left of Bang, to assist anyone we can in becoming more situationally aware and more survivable. While Anonymous might accept a survival of the fittest mentality, I choose to continue to support those who volunteer to serve our country.

Communication is an essential part of our life. Being able to do it well and being able to convey an opinion and sway those who are open to new ideas has a lot to do with success, whether that is personal or professional. I recommend that you pick up How to Argue, by Jonathan Herring, and that you think about where your debate skills could be improved. If you follow the guidance that Herring presents, your ability to contribute to an intelligent debate and provide objective criticisms of another person’s point of view will increase your ability to influence. You will feel confident in the defensibility of your view, earn the respect of others and will be proud to have your real name associated with your opinions.

Want to see other books that we have read and recommend? Take a look at our complete reading list for our other suggestions.