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The Learning Curve

Rapoport’s rules: A 4-step strategy to de-escalate tense arguments

Arguments don’t have to be about winning or losing; they can help us build trust despite disagreeing.
An illustration representing a tense argument between a man and woman
Credit: NUBEFY / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • We often approach arguments like lawyers trying to win a case.
  • Rapoport’s rules ask us to affirm the other’s position before uttering a word of criticism.
  • Doing so helps us build the trust necessary to make arguments productive, whether we ultimately reach an agreement or not.

We’ve all had one of those arguments. You know the kind: Things start civil enough, but then the other person says something that rankles you. Maybe it was their tone, a mistaken fact, or them repeating the same point yet again. You shout that they aren’t listening. They hit back that you don’t understand. Tension escalates, emotions crescendo, and before you know it, you’re just arguing to make the other person pay. By the end, nothing is solved, and everyone is emotionally exhausted (to say nothing of the apologies and relationship mending you’ll have to do tomorrow).

But even when arguments center on intense or highly personal subjects, they don’t have to regress into verbal fisticuffs. They can be sources of learning and clarity that leave us better off — whether we reach an agreement or not. If only we had some way to de-escalate the emotional tension when we feel it welling up.

Enter mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport. Rapoport devised a code of conduct for offering critical commentary that he hoped would advance, rather than inhibit, further discussion. That code would later be synthesized by philosopher Daniel Dennett into four simple steps he called Rapoport’s rules.* And while these rules are useful when providing formal commentary, they can also be utilized in personal arguments, online debates, and all manner of would-be ideological fracases.

Rule #1: Explain the other person’s position clearly, vividly, and justly

The first rule is to explain the other’s position as accurately as possible. However, your paraphrase shouldn’t be a perfunctory tit-for-tat exchange —  that is, “See, I listened to you; now, it’s your turn to listen to me.” Your goal instead is to demonstrate care for the other person’s feelings and intelligence. You’re showing respect and relaying that — even if you don’t ultimately agree — you take their ideas seriously.

This rule has been used by Chris Voss, businessman and former FBI negotiator, to great effect in many potentially hazardous conversations. On the Lex Fridman Podcast, he shared a time when he was asked to moderate a conversation on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the time, Israel was shelling Gaza while Hamas was firing rockets into Israeli cities. It was an especially fraught time to discuss an already polemical issue.

Voss agreed but under one condition: Before being allowed to state their arguments, participants had to summarize the other side’s position strongly enough that their interlocutors would say, “That’s right.”

Did the conversation end with everyone in agreement? No. But Voss recalls that no one lost control either. “We wanted to show people that you can have conversations that don’t devolve into screaming matches with vitriol, talking about how you’re dedicated to the destruction of the other side,” he said of the experience.

He added: “Articulating deeply what the other side feels is transformative for both people involved in the process.”

Rule #2: Mention anything you’ve learned

As with the previous rule, you don’t want to be perfunctory here either. Rattling off a few factoids or minor revelations won’t ease tensions as much as waste time. When mentioning what you’ve learned from the other person, try to affirm something non-trivial and genuinely meaningful to you. According to Seth Freeman, a professor of conflict management at Columbia Business school, doing so not only displays your willingness to learn but that you feel the other person is someone worthy of learning from.

“It’s the exact opposite of what I trained to do in law school. I was trained to think litigiously. [W]henever you say something, I’m listening with an eye toward invalidating — anything I can say to undermine you. And that’s typically the way we approach an argument,” Freeman said on the Great Courses podcast

Additionally, Freeman recommends praising the other person when appropriate. You could mention the eloquence or passion they bring to the conversation. It could be their knowledge of the subject or their ethically minded approach. The point isn’t to substantiate their position; it’s to recognize the value of the person behind that position.

No matter how close we are to someone, I don’t think we want anyone to feel like they’ve lost after-the-fact because resentment is not conducive to ongoing, long-term, profitable relationships.

Chris Voss

Rule #3: List the points on which you agree

During heated arguments, information and intentions can be obliterated beneath a fusillade of feelings. That’s because yelling and aggressive body language effectively weaponize words. When that happens, you and the other person are no longer responding to the subject at hand. You are defending yourself from those hurtful and destructive emotions.

Listing the points on which you agree can defuse the situation and bring the temperature down. It also reminds you that the argument is much larger than the points of contention, reducing the winner-take-all mentality to silence our inner lawyers.

Taken together, rules one to three are about building trust, and trust is ultimately the secret to de-escalating tension among people. When people feel trust in each other, it makes them feel more prosocial and collaborative.

Research by neuroeconomist Paul Zak has shown that when we feel trust, our brains release oxytocin. While popularly known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin isn’t just about romantic intimacy. Zak’s studies have shown that oxytocin increases cooperation, reduces social wariness of others, and enhances our ability to understand each other’s emotional states.

This response is graded: “The more trust one is shown by others, the more oxytocin is released in the brain,” Zak wrote for Greater Good Magazine. Therefore, the more we can use rules one to three to build trust, the less tense and more productive our arguments can be.

A man and a woman standing next to each other talking about a painting.
Rapoport’s first three rules are about building trust and showing respect to the other person in the argument. Only after you’ve done that may you offer a critique or refutation of their position. (Credit: Iryna / Adobe Stock)

Rule #4: Only now make a critique or refutation

Now that you’ve done your best to establish trust, you may offer a critique, refutation, or counterpoint to the other’s argument. Thanks to that trust, the other person will hopefully see your criticism as more constructive and collaborative than combative. And having put in the time to think about and articulate the other’s side, you’ll be less prone to engage in what Dennett calls “machine gun fire nitpicking.”

With that said, there are times when you may want to swap this rule out for another strategy. For instance, sometimes it’s best to walk away. You may find yourself in an argument with someone who perversely enjoys escalating emotions, and nothing you do will build the necessary trust or respect. Other times, the subject may be so volatile and the stakes so low that pursuing the argument isn’t worthwhile. Use your best judgment to determine if you want to risk the emotional fallout.

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Similarly, you can choose to build on the conversation rather than offer a critique. An alternative that Freeman advises is to probe further. Ask open-ended questions. Discuss areas where you are confused. Show where your position may be an extension of theirs. This creates a sense of co-ownership in the search for truth or solutions.

As Voss pointed out in an interview with Big Think+: “The issue of winning and losing needs to fall away to: Was this a great collaboration where we were both better off and I was treated with respect? Because if I feel like I was treated disrespectfully, I’m going to make you pay.”

That’s the ultimate takeaway of Rapoport’s rules. No one has to pay, and we don’t have to approach disagreements as the do-or-die death matches of ideas and identity. Will we always reach an agreement or solution? Of course not. Smart, rational, and responsible people can differ in opinion. But if we view arguments as collaborative truth- and trust-building efforts, we can all be better off — and a little less exhausted — at the end of them.

Learn more on Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Daniel Dennett and Chris Voss’s full classes for your organization, request a demo.

* Author’s note: Not to be confused with Rapoport’s rule (singular), which is named after ecologist Eduardo H. Rapoport and discusses plant and animal species diversity across latitudinal gradients.


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