How to fight fair over controversial topics?
January 3, 2013 10:09 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with someone who doesn't seem to fight fair? My mother and I often have intellectual discussions about politics, religion and ethical questions, where we often have different or even contradictory views to one another. They wind up as arguments despite my best intentions - please help me to do better!

I believe I am mostly a fair fighter, but I don't feel like my mother is - she interrupts me when I'm speaking, tends to rant, sometimes "preaches to the choir," has strong and apparent emotions which 'scale up' the tension in the debate, and seems to hijack the debate by focusing on tiny details to deflect from the deeper/more important issue, making assumptions, or going off on a seemingly unrelated tangent.

I'm not sure how the debates/discussions start exactly, but they seem to come out of usual conversation on political issues or current affairs, which we are both interested in. I feel like she starts these conversations but I can't be sure as they seem to come out of nowehere. I enjoy having a challenging intellectual debate, so I don't want to avoid these conversations entirely but I am fed up with things descending into an argument or becoming overly emotional. I want to feel like we are both giving eachother the best chance to agree, convince eachother, or disagree. I want that to happen whilst remaining calm, mostly rational, and reasonable.

Is there anything I can do to transform these debates into "fair fights"?

Please don't suggest moving out! I can't afford that, and in any case I could get a flatmate or a boss like this someday!
posted by EatMyHat to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The second you realize you're in a battle, step off the battlefield.
posted by The Deej at 10:11 PM on January 3, 2013 [10 favorites]

Put out fires, don't blow on them.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:18 PM on January 3, 2013

I don't discuss with people who do that. Life is too short.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:20 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

My mother in law does this. She's had a lifetime of practice baiting her own children, and it pains me to see The Spouse and her sister & brothers goat-roped into a harangue. I don't engage with the MIL, 'cause she's not interested in having a discussion. That's probably the best course of action here.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:21 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Family generates enough bullshit to fight about without politics. If a fight's brewin', let it at least be about something productive like who's going to pick up dog shit in the backyard or whether or not Aunty's Christmas gift was a veiled feud instigation or what-have-you.
posted by carsonb at 10:27 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think it might be a good idea to reconceptualize these conversations. Interruptions and "preaching to the choir" (are there other people around that she's trying to rally to her side or something?) are not useful parts of "challenging intellectual debate". These transactions are about something other than a mutual search for the truth- or, if they are about a mutual search for the truth, the tactics chosen by each party in the search are sub-optimal.

If things are becoming "overly emotional", ask if the conversation can slow down. I think that behind any heated emotion is a desire, or a set of desires, and that the presence of emotion is a useful signal that helps you learn about that desire. Try not to reject the emotion. Find out what she wants that makes her emotional about issue X. If she's really interested in a dialog with you, you could learn something about her or find some common ground. If she's not interested in that way, at least you'll know more about the limits of the situation. Maybe future conversations won't seem as tempting.

Perhaps yet more useful is examining your own emotions. Sometimes when debating something with family, you might feel yourself get angry. Noting this possibility can be useful. For example, one source of heat for me is the following: In any group (especially family) there can be what might be called "shared implicit beliefs". When a fellow debater makes statements that assume a shared implicit belief that you don't know if you can go along with any more, that can create feelings of confusion and frustration. This is a great opportunity- a signal- to, when you are outside the confrontation and have more mental space, examine what those shared implicit beliefs are, and whether you want to continue going along with them or explicitly reject them.
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 10:34 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Find someone else to debate with.
posted by jacalata at 10:48 PM on January 3, 2013

you're making it sound like it's your problem, like it's something that's your job to fix or improve. she acting obnoxiously. you're within your rights to just terminate the conversation and leave the room. if you're feeling really loving toward her sometime you can share your feelings about this with her, but really, you just need to blow her off when she gets like that. there's no way to talk someone like that down that doesn't cost you more in energy and enmeshment than you get back in improved discussions.
posted by facetious at 11:08 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

People seemed pre-programmed to fight to win—it's the default mode. "Fair fighting" (e.g., "I" statements, active listening, no derailing, etc) is like the Marquess of Queensberry rules for personal conversation/debate, i.e., you have to know the rules (and be interested in changing your game) in order to apply them. I don't think there is any subtle way to nudge someone into this.

If these discussions are important to you, you might try addressing the issue directly with your mom (not during a heated conversation, obviously). But, I'm with those who say find someone else for these debates.
posted by she's not there at 11:41 PM on January 3, 2013

You can't have a tug-of-war unless both people are pulling. Once that tension ramps up? Just drop the rope and walk away.
posted by KathrynT at 11:42 PM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

People who argue like your mom does aren't looking to have a "challenging intellectual debate," so if that's what you want, find someone else to debate with. I don't know exactly what it is that she does want, but it bothers you, so I'd try to avoid having those sorts of conversations with her.
posted by salvia at 12:03 AM on January 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Simply cutting off conversation and walking away might be the best policy. Nonetheless, here are five suggestions that do not involve cutting off conversations with your mom:

(1) Be up front about how you feel regarding interruptions. Maybe say something like: "Mom, I enjoy conversations about politics [or whatever], but when we talk, I feel hurt when you interrupt me. I'll try not to just ramble on and on, but when I'm talking, I would appreciate it if you would try to listen and at least understand where I'm coming from." The same sort of strategy could be applied with respect to emotional ranting, etc. "I feel uncomfortable when you rant." Or "I feel uncomfortable when our conversations get so heated."

(2) Try a Socratic approach. Instead of meeting declarations with contrary declarations, try asking questions and exploring your mother's position. Example: Someone tells me that she opposes food stamp programs. Rather than replying that food stamp programs keep lots of poor people from starving -- which makes an assumption about what matters to my interlocutor -- I could ask, "Why do you oppose food stamp programs?" I might even lay out some possible options: "Is it because you are worried about fraud, or because you think it is unfair to people who work for their food, or because of how extensive the programs are, or because government programs are inefficient, or something else?" If my interlocutor says that she thinks there is rampant fraud, I might ask what evidence she has. I also might ask why rampant fraud is a bad thing in this case: is there a principle underlying that judgment or is it just a gut reaction to fraud? I find it especially helpful to ask about my interlocutor's principles and sources of evidence, especially which sources of evidence my interlocutor regards as legitimate.

(3) Try slowing yourself down. Instead of thinking about how to reply to your mother's claims while she is speaking, think about what her claims mean and how they might be tested. Try to understand the topic from her perspective. Really think about what is at issue, rather than looking for a quick zinger or a fast way to destroy her view. [I find this very hard to do.] You might help yourself in doing this by leaving a real, sometimes awkwardly long pause after your mom takes a break. Maybe say, "Let me think about that for a few seconds," in order to emphasize that you are engaged.

(4) Invite your mom to help you explore something related to the topic but not quite on the topic. For example, when things get really heated, try asking her why she thinks the conversation has become so heated. Do this softly and slowly. "Huh, we're basically shouting at each other at this point: why are we doing that?" If you can make it a serious concern and really have some interest in finding the answer, it might serve to defuse the tension and focus the debate onto the most basic assumptions you are both making.

(5) Start the conversation yourself. It might be that the reason your mom ends up on an emotional rant is that she is starting the conversation and steering it toward something that she is passionate about. Maybe try picking some other topics. Try to find something that you think is intellectually stimulating but that doesn't result in a feud.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:23 AM on January 4, 2013 [22 favorites]

Whether it is friends, family, or an employer - it is best not to engage with anyone heading off of the deep end during social interactions.

This preserves their integrity, and yours.

The trick is disengaging without being insulting. Respectful acknowledgement of the person's last statement + gently changing (or shifting) the topic of conversation usually works here.

Cease these types of discussions with your mother if you want peace between you.
posted by jbenben at 1:24 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make your expectations clear (eg when she interrupts, let her finish, and before you address anything she said, explain in whatever words are polite yet firm that she interrupted you and must not do that, else she will be indicating to you that she not interested in a meeting of minds, which means you don't need to be present and you will leave). When she breaks rules of fairness, just drop the conversation on the spot, leave, and don't be baited.

Either she will start to come around, or you two can't argue any more. Either way, you win.
posted by anonymisc at 1:53 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: Is there anything I can do to transform these debates into "fair fights"?

The first thing is to recognize when it has either crossed the line or if debate started past the line of good faith at the outset. Not all bad-faith arguments start out as such. Often, a person, when confronted with a point they cannot argue effectively, will take the conversation down the path of fallacy as opposed to conceding the point. They may not win the argument, but it does allow then to regroup while you deal with an unrelated subject.

Not sure of the specifics of your mother's tactics, but it is worth studying up on various fallacious argument techniques. At least then you will know if she is arguing in good faith as opposed to manipulating the conversation to get around actually engaging in debate.

Here are some resources:

The Nizkor Project (
Wiki List of Fallacies (
Gish Gallop (
Fallacy Files (
Intellectually honest and dishonest debate tactics (
Logical Fallacies (
Approaches to Critical Thinking (

And there are plenty more out there (google search).
posted by lampshade at 2:50 AM on January 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

I learned a long time ago that there are certain topics my mother and I should just avoid. When we start veering in this direction, I'll usually say "Hey, this is one of those times we get snippy with each other, so why don't we talk about something else?" It has saved me a lot of fighting and headaches.
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:46 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Many people think they can change their parents and waste a lot of time on it. It's some sort of neurotic hope of having a do-over childhood. If this is you, will you give this project up for rational reasons? If so, your problem is solved. If not, then why do you expect your mother to give up her beliefs?
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:32 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there anything I can do to transform these debates into "fair fights"?

No. Stop having the debates, as she is clearly not interested in them.
posted by spaltavian at 5:39 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: My father and I love, love, love intellectual debates, and have been having them since I was about twelve; but even when things get spirited, we still fight fair. So that's why I'm going to recommend what Dad would do when he's up against someone who's not fighting fair (I've seen him do this twice) - he gives up, but his last word is to just let them conclude stating a given point, hesitate a moment as if he's at least considering it, and then shrugs and simply says, "Okay." His tone makes it pretty clear that he doesn't agree, but his words say that he's not gonna press the issue any more. Sometimes the person will try to re-state their point, and if they do, he lets them, and then does the same "okay" response. It sends a polite, but firm, "we're done here" message.

I've seen him do this with a couple of Tea-Party aunts and uncles (Dad's been a Democrat since he volunteered on the RFK campaign in '68) and it always works.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:52 AM on January 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I try not to engage with people who tend to go into rant mode, even if I agree with them. It gets old.

I find that diversion works really well. My Mom has to be right about everything 100% of the time. If I get bored with whatever it is she's on about, I just change the subject. "Oh Hey, that reminds me, are you watching Toddlers and Tiaras?" No, whatever it was she just said didn't remind me of that, and I'm positive she's not watching it, but we can shift the discussion to some other topic and keep things pleasant.

My in-laws are simple country folk and will occassionally come out with some in appropriate racist, sexist or otherwise unacceptable remark. This time it was, "I jewed him down." Mind, I'm Jewish so it rankled a bit. Both Husbunny and I clucked at the same time, and I said, "Hey now!" MIL looked a bit sheepish and said, "I'm sorry, I was brought up with that expression." I know she meant no harm, and that she didn't even think about the fact that the phrase is objectionable. Also, I changed the subject.

Find other people to have debates and intellectual conversations, talk with your mom about non-controversial subjects. You'll both be happier.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:04 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: I am going to disagree respectfully with she's not there. Based on a mefite recommendation, I read Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. It's a very hokey book, so you have to kind of read around the sappy schlock, and I strongly endorse lokta's advice to skip all the poetry. However, it presents some effective strategies for having better conversations.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, I was about to launch into a gun-control "debate" on Facebook with an acquaintance from elementary school when I stopped myself, realized the futility about what I was pondering, and instead, used the principles from the book. It resulted in an intensely interesting exchange. It was like magic. He went from being all "grar grar personal responsibility grar grar they wanna take our guns" to expressing his confusion and feelings of helplessness. He spontaneously volunteered that he thought we should have better mental health screening for gun licenses (i.e. he advocated a form of stricter gun control) without me ever having to make a logical argument. I agreed with him, and suggested that we should improve the availability of mental health services. And instead of having the same-old same-old argument, we were two people talking about how to prevent future tragedies.

However, I didn't "win" the "debate." I shifted my goals in the conversation from trying to prove something to him, to trying to better understand him, his reasoning, and—yes—his feelings. It felt nothing like the rush of triumphing in a political discussion, but it was very satisfying in a really different way. It was a challenging intellectual exercise for me, not about gathering facts and deploying logic, but rather about reading what he had said very carefully and trying to really understand, not the issue, or how best to defend my stance, but rather where he was coming from.

If you can try this, just as an experiment with your mom, you may find it very rewarding.
posted by BrashTech at 6:23 AM on January 4, 2013 [11 favorites]

It sounds to me like you both want different things out of these "debates." You want an intellectual challenge; she wants to win/persuade you to agree with her point of view.

You're not engaged in the same argument. If I were you, I'd stop having them.
posted by rtha at 6:28 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Arguing with one's parents. An interesting game. The only way to win is not to play.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:01 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If/when the discussion spirals out of control/into a rant/overly emotional, call attention to it. "Hey, Mom, can we dial it down a little? You don't have to agree with me, but please give me an opening." Or "Maybe we shouldn't talk about this a lot, it seems like it's kind of upsetting." That gives her an out (if she really can't handle it) and cools things down.

You may have to switch from "debate" mode into "interview" mode. This technique often works better. "Wow, I had no idea you felt that way. Why do you think X happens?" This also cools things down, gives your mom a chance to speak thoughtfully/honestly/in detail, and may even lead to self-examination or a confession that she is not 100% sure of herself. And you respond in kind.

Take winning/losing out of the equation. Who cares? Isn't the point to understand each other (not necessarily agree, but understand?).
posted by emjaybee at 7:48 AM on January 4, 2013

It sounds to me like you both want different things out of these "debates." You want an intellectual challenge; she wants to win/persuade you to agree with her point of view.

You're not engaged in the same argument.


The two parties can disagree on the particulars of an issue, but there needs to be a fundamental agreement between them about about the purpose of the conversation. Your mother's in-argument behaviors - trying to score points on irrelevant details, needing to be right above all else, getting emotional in the face of disagreement - imply that she's threatened by challenges to her worldview and is looking to reinforce the parent-child dynamic. It does not sound like she's looking for the earnest exploration of the issues that you want.

Given this disconnect, I'd say you're better off not engaging her in these debates. Find a peer to discuss ethics with.
posted by charlemangy at 10:36 AM on January 4, 2013

In this case, it seems like it would be good to get your intellectual discussions from another friend who has more your discussion style, and disengage when things like this happen to come up with your mom.

That said, I would also consider why you don't think it's "fighting fair" to get emotional about a topic in a discussion. I mean...maybe she is truly emotional about these topics, and possibly she has more emotional investment in whatever is being discussed. For example, when my cousin (an atheist) insists that he believes no one truly believes in God on a deep level, that's not going to be a very emotional discussion for him (he can act all rational and detatched), but I think it's pretty understandable that I (who, in fact, do believe in God), would feel more emotional/attacked about the discussion. Obviously you're discussing different things, but consider why certain issues might be legitimately more emotional for her than for you...that's not "not fighting fair," it's simply expressing what she's experiencing. Or maybe not...but give it a thought...emotions are not inherently unfair in a discussion.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:33 PM on January 4, 2013

Is she aware that you are having intellectual debates? When my boyfriend and I first got together, we'd have these types of conversations and both of us couldn't figure out exactly why they started or why they got so fighty so quickly. After we worked on it and don't have this dynamic anymore, we figured out a part of it was when I would express an opinion that was just contained in an offhanded comment; it would seem to him to be interesting point for ethical, political, moral, etc consideration, and would start probing questions to get to the root of it. Meanwhile I would get frustrated because why are you bringing up Kant/the second Reich/religion while I'm trying to discuss where to have dinner, describe a cool art show I saw, or some other normal topic. It seemed totally normal to him to transition this way in a conversation with a smart person. He had no idea that I was totally unused to this type of discourse and could not really emotionally disengage from questions of morals, ethics, politics, etc especially when they seemed to come from out of the blue. I am also markedly less adept at these types of arguments than he is; I don't know the 30 kinds of argumental fallacies. And if you are bringing up any argumental fallacies with your mom during these debates, or are considering doing it, know that my boyfriend did so! it would piss me off to no end, making me so angry I would feel trapped and unable to argue back as he danced verbal philosophical circles around me, making me do stuff like interrupt, namecall, etc.

So now when he feels this interest in intellectual discourse, he has to say something first like "that is an interesting thought about X. Can we talk about it more? " or if he forgets i am allowed to interrupt his next sentence about philosophy/ethics/morals and say "I do not want to discuss the moral stance I took as I watched and laughed with a cute baby throwing packages of potato chips onto the floor at the grocery store, ok? " Sometimes I say yes, sometimes no, but it gives me a chance to finish whatever I wanted to say and also decide if I am willing tottalk about it. It also gives him a chance to bring up the topic later for a pure intellectual debate when we are both in the mood. We do have intellectual debates sometimes still and when he brings up argumental fallacies I get to ask him and the internet for an explanation before continuing the intellectual discourse.
posted by holyrood at 12:58 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

BrashTech, awesome answer! I am totally going to read that book!
posted by mermily at 1:22 PM on January 4, 2013

My mother does this exact thing constantly. I came in to give a couple of the most basic tips I've found kinda-sorta work when it comes to having any kind of intellectual conversation with her - but after reading all the other posts here, I have to nth just about everyone who came before (especially those who said to make sure there is a mutual understanding that you are debating and what exactly a debate entails) and go on my way.
posted by Urban Winter at 1:29 PM on January 4, 2013

Response by poster: Lots of good ideas here - thanks everyone for the input! I've got to be honest I am not ready to give up on debating or arguing over politics with my my mom but now I have some ideas on how to better handle the situations when they arise.
posted by EatMyHat at 10:14 PM on January 5, 2013

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