Solving Problems by Negotiating Differences 

Writing Commons, Rogerian ArgumentHow many times have you been in an argument that you knew you couldn't win? Are you reluctant to change your mind about certain social, political, or personal  issues? Do you have an unshakable faith in a particular religion or philosophy? For example, are you absolutely certain that abortion is immoral under all circumstances? Are you categorically against animal experimentation for advancements in medicine? Do  you believe that criminals who have tortured and killed people should receive the death penalty? Do you believe that parents should have no more than two children because of the world population problem? Do you believe it is your patriotic duty to buy solely American products?

Some of our beliefs and arguments are based on faith, some on emotion, and some on logic alone. We all hold different religious, p olitical, and personal beliefs that largely define who we are and how we think. Within the past fifty years, as the size of our global village has appeared to shrink with the use of television, fax, and jets, we have become increasingly more sophisticated and knowledgable. As a result, most educated people now realize that few significant issues have simple solutions. Thanks to modern scholarship and research, we have come to realize that our personalities and thoughts are shaped to some degree by cultural expectations. Philosophers have challenged us to recognize that our worlviews - our assumptions about reality, what is good, what is possible - are influenced by our day-to-day experiences. We have realized that truth is nt a fixed, static entity that can be carried into a battle like a banner.

One wonderful aspect of your college career is meeting different worldviews through books and through discussions with people whom you otherwise would not encounter. Indeed, many college campuses offer a wonderful glimpse of the diversity of modern-day life. A wide-eyed glance at students at the university center on my campus, for instance, will show you Chinese students working alongside students from Africa and South America. Young women dressed in their power suits mix freely with returning older adult students. Fraternity brothers rush from place to place, dressed in their blue blazers and short haircuts, while male musicians, dressed in the tie-dyed fashions of the 1960s and shoulder-length hair, play guitars and sing protest songs.

One result of our increasingly sophisticated world is that you cannot assume that your readers will believe or even understand everythinhg you say. On the contrary, you need to assume that your readers will doubt you. They will question the validity of your evidence and test the logic of your conclusions. Modern readers tend to be particularly contentious when you insist on assertions that they find objectionable. Because of this shift in audience attitude, writers need to develop compelling ways of organizing and presenting arguments.

When  you wish to address an emotional and controversial issue and when  your audience is likely to be threatened by  your ideas, you will probably not be successful if you make your claim in the introduction of your essay (or verbal argument). No matter how thoroughly you go on to support your ideas with careful reasoning and to refute other claims (such as those held by your audience) respectfully, your readers have already decided to ignore you. For example, can you imagine how your roomate would respond if you remark that he or she is a terrible slob? Even if you follow up your comment with photographs of the dirty dishes, cluttered rooms, and soild carpet left in his or her wake, can you imagine that the final outcome of your detailed presentation might be resolution? More likely you will face anger, bitterness, and denial. Watch your introductory prepositions!

Most of us tend to resist change and are threatened by ideas that challenge what we believe. Also, most of us dislike being told what to do and how to think, so even if our brains tell us to agree, our emotions (and egos) tell us to shut down and ignore what we are hearing. A male chauvinist who believes that women are intellectually inferior to men will be unlikely to listen to your argument that women are as intelligent as men. Your quotes from world-renowned educators and philosophers and your statistics from the Stanford-Blinet or SAT, GRE, and MCAT scores would probably be dismissed as inaccurate because they threaten his assumptions. Of course, you could hope that the chauvinist would change his mind over time when he wasn't being pressed, yet you couldn't bet on this outcome.

Because conflict is inevitable, we need to seek creative ways to solve complicated problems and to negotiate differences between opposing parties. Although there are no simple formulas for bringing opposing factions together, we do have a relatively new form of communication founded on Carl Rogers's client-centered therapeutic approach to one-on-one and group counseling. Essentially, the Rogerian problem-solving approach reconceptualizes our goals when we argue. Instead of assuming that an author or speaker shoudl hope to overcome an antagonistic audience with shrewd reasoning, the Rogerian approach would have the author or speaker attempt to reach some common ground with the audience. Thus, in a very real way, Rogerian "persuasion" is not a form of persuasion so much as it is a way of opening communication for negotiating common ground between divergent points of view. In terms of writing, we coud say that the Rogerian approach melds the techniques of informative analyses with those of persuasive reports. Your goal when you employ the tactics of Rogerian problem-solving is not for you to win and for your opponent to lose, a scenario that more often results in both parties losing. Instead, you explore ways that will allow both you and your audience to win.

On Rogerian Argument

adapted from Rhetoric Matters: Language and Argument in Context by Megan McIntyre and Curtis Le Van

Rogerian argument is often difficult for students to understand because it asks them to think about controversial topics in a different way: from the perspective of someone they disagree with. The discussions that follow are meant to help  you understand the reason for and the components of an argument in Rogerian style.

On Finding Common Ground 

"On Finding Common Ground" is written by Jeffrey Spicer, University of South Florida

"It is only through the clash of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied."

- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

"The major barrier to mutual interpersonal communication is our very natural tendency to judge, to evaluate, to approve or disapprove, the statement of the other person or the other group."

- Carl Rogers, "Communication: Its Blocking and Its Facilitation," 1951

argue (v.) - from the Greek argos, lit. "white," or arguron, lit. "silver," and meaning "to shine forth": in contemporary usage, to present reasons for or against.

In 1951, the psychologist Carl Rogers gave a talk at the Centennial Conference on Communications at Northwestern University that changed the way we think about argument. Psychology at that time was dominated by psychologists like B.F. Skinner, who were learning to scientifically condition thoughts and feelings in the same way that Pavlov had conditioned his dogs to salivate at the sound of their dinner bell a half-century before.

Rogers, on the other hand, was a humanist. He believed that human speech and human cognition were interrelated and that the success or failure of one was related to the success or failure of the other. In "Communication: Its Blocking and Its Facilitation," he put forward as the cornerstone of his practice the belief that "the whole task of psychotherapy is the task of dealing with a failure in communication" (330).

According to Rogers, the principle difficulty preventing people from settling their differences, indeed from communicating effectively in an everyday sense, was that people couldn't stop evaluating one another. The more important a topic was to them, the more emotional the participants in a discussion became, and the more they were apt to judge what the other person was saying rather than giving it the best hearing they could. In short, Rogers noticed that when people argue, they tend to make judgments about their opponents' positions before they really understand them.

Rogers's goal, then, was to avoid this tendency to constantly evaluate and instead to "listen with understanding." By this, he meant that people should not only try to  understand that someone holds a particular viewpoint but also try to get a sense of what it's like to believe that. "What does that mean? It means to see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person's point of view, to sense how it feels to him, to achieve his frame of reference in regard to the thing he is talking about" (Rogers 331-32). Rogers himself acknowledged barriers to this kind of understanding. First and foremost, you have to be willing to try it, and not many people are. Rogers's approach seems like you're giving ground to your opponents and, what's worse, sometimes you actually are. "In the first place, it takes courage [...] you run the risk of being changed yourself" (Rogers 333).

It is important to note, though, that this sort of Rogerian understanding is also itself an argumentative tactic. First, people will almost always refuse to consider something if they feel threatened by it, and Rogerian understanding reduces the threat to the opposition. Second, people reciprocate; they tend to treat others as they are treated by them.

Despite the initial difficulties, then, each new understanding of the opponent's view makes the next easier, while at the same time inviting, even obligating, the opponent to strive for a like understanding. "This procedure can dela with the insincerities, the defensive exaggerations, the lies, the 'false fronts' which characterize almost every failure in communication. These defensive distortions drop away with astonishing speed as people find that the only intent is to understand, not judge" (Rogers 336).