Can 'Why?' really mean 'Tell me more?'

So I just out and asked him, "Why are you so darned argumentative?"

And he said, "Because that's how I learn."

"Learn?!" I replied, stunned. "You argue with people so you can learn?"

"Yep, that's how I learn. Always have. Have to admit it's caused me some trouble. But that's what I do."

It was after a class. A bunch of us were in the bar, standing in front of one of those huge stone fireplaces - one with so much mass that when it's not fired up and giving off too much heat, it's literally stone cold and sucking every bit of warmth from the rest of the room.

This plumber was one of those guys built like a wall. Thick. Sturdy. Wide face. Arms crossed over his barrel chest most all the time. Wild hair with eyebrows to match. I bet his grandpa and dad looked just like him.

My turn. "Well, doesn't that make it awfully hard on the person you're trying to learn from?"

"Never seemed that way to me. I just want to find out what they know."

"Well, I'll be," I thought. This is a completely new perspective. Here, all this time, I thought argumentative people were being - well, all kinds of not-nice things, difficult-on-purpose things. But something as innocent as "trying to learn" never occurred to me.

I came from an extremely quiet family and community. No one argued unless they were at their absolute wit's end. No one raised their voice unless they were really angry. That's the kind of angry that comes from holding it in for weeks, months, maybe even years. Then out it comes. Boom.

So a raised voice, an argumentative voice, where I come from, means that damage is meant to be done. It means you can only get hurt from going up against it.

In the farm school where I grew up, learning went one way. The teacher taught, and the students kept buttoned up. Same with parents. Dad said it once, and the kids understood. Or else. Right now. No questions asked.

So what's this stuff about putting up an argument in order to learn?

Seeing Things Anew

Time to try on a new perspective. Let's try a shift. Let's reposition argument to discussion. Just take out the loud volume and the argumentative tone of voice, and it's just a discussion, right? I can do discussion - sometimes all day.

So I've been experimenting with my own reactions. Instead of believing, "This is an argument, and it's got to be stopped, or at least controlled," I've been saying to myself, "This is an invitation to teach. I'm sure he wants to learn."

Wow. What a powerful shift.

Once the possibility sunk in that argumentative-ness is just another learning style, my whole perspective of interacting with people changed. This includes all kinds of folks - students, customers, family, friends, strangers. With each person that I thought was being difficult, I tried on the idea that they were just trying to learn something. Each objection is a request for information.

From a student "Why?" might not mean "I disagree!" It might mean "Tell me more."

There's Always One In The Bunch

As sure as every class or employee meeting has the silent back row boys, there's also "the big mouth up front." He's inevitable. Instead seeing him as a troublemaker, let's try him out as an eager learner.

"Hey, I got a bone to pick with you!"

I'm trying to get set up for the class. I have a couple things on my mind, such as where's the extension cord and what happened to my slides.

"You do? What's that?" I say politely, hoping that will end it. Of course it won't. This is just the beginning. This is his way of announcing that he's the one. Every class has one, and he's the one.

"Yeah, you know, you blah, blah, blah ..."

The rest of the room already knows this guy. And they know what he's going to do. Sometimes they look forward to it with relish.

"Oh boy, is he ever going to work you over!" they seem to be thinking. "He eats instructors alive! You better know your stuff." That almost used to intimidate me.

Some gentle members of the class feel sorry for the instructor, and try to warn me ahead of time. A kind person takes me aside.

"You know, ole Al ain't as mean as he acts. Don't let him get to you. I've been working with him for years, and his bark ain't as bad as his bite."

I've had many ideas of why the big mouth is the way he is. I've thought that his game is "stump the instructor," but even when I know all the answers, he still has more challenges. I've thought his agenda is to disrupt the class. I've decided he just has to be the center of attention, no matter how sick of him everyone is.

These may all be part of what's going on, but the explanation I like best these days is that arguing is just how this guy learns, and his annoying behavior is simply evidence of his eagerness.

Seeing it that way sure makes it easier on me. Whoa, he's not working against me - odd way to show it - but he's working with me.

And you know, in that light he adds a lot to the class. He adds energy. He makes the rest of the class focus. They can't wait to see how I handle what they think are his attacks. He's my straight man.

I can look at customers the same way. You might try it, too. We all fear the argument from the homeowner, "Your price is too high." To many of us, that objection means "You blew it, your competition gets the job." But what if the customer is really asking for information: "Tell me what's so special that makes it worth that much money?"

Our answer, "Well I guess I can lower my price," is an answer to a different question.

I've been thinking about the argumentative learner for about a year now. Different people have different reactions to a situation that seems argumentative. Some take him on and try to win. Some duck and hide. Some change the subject. Some try to answer all his objections with the belief that there's an end somewhere.

But seeing argumentative-ness as a way to learn changed how I see the world. The world isn't full of conflict. It's full of people who want to learn.

Well, maybe it's not perfect. But it's a fresh perspective. And that's worth something, too.

Fey At ISH NA 2004
Carol Fey is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America trade show held Oct. 14-16 in Boston. She will present "The Fun & Effective Way To Teach Controls Wiring To Your Employees" Thursday, Oct. 14 at 3 p.m. and repeat the session Friday, Oct. 15 at 9:45 a.m. To register for the show, visit