A 200-person crowd at the Eastern Market during a Better Arguments Project 2019 event in Detroit.

To Build a Better Society, Start With Better Arguments

TAKEAWAY: The Aspen Institute and its partners, Facing History and Ourselves and Allstate among them, are learning that the route to a healthier civic life isn’t to argue less. It’s to engage in more productive arguments, starting with taking “winning” off the table.

The late Steve Jobs used a parable from his childhood in addressing the importance of constructive arguing. He talked about a neighbor who had a stone polishing machine in his garage. Little more than a coffee can attached to a motor, it was loud but it got the job done, turning sharp stones into polished rocks. Steve Jobs saw productive arguments as a polishing process, noisy but essential in turning raw ideas and feelings into ready plans of action. 

In the same spirit, the Aspen Institute, the well-known think tank, created the Better Arguments Project in 2016 in conjunction with Allstate and Facing History and Ourselves to encourage a more constructive approach to disagreement. The health of democracy relies on debate, deliberation and nuance to address complex problems. Currently, civic arguments in America are dysfunctional. People are engaging less and less across differences, and when they do, it is for the sake of defeating one another. Because people are shrinking away from discussion rather than tackling serious problems together, Better Arguments is aimed at improving the ways people make their points, listen to others and make informed decisions together. 

In 2017, Allstate, Facing History and Ourselves, and the Aspen Institute came together to design the framework, concepts and principles that became the foundation for the Better Arguments Project. Facing History and Ourselves, a global educational organization, uses the lessons of history to help people think critically and wrestle with difficult issues. “We desire thoughtful debate expressed through different viewpoints, because a thriving democracy needs good arguments,” Roger Brooks, president and CEO of Facing History and Ourselves.

On the corporate front, it was little surprise when Aspen’s longtime partner, Allstate, stepped forward to help. Few companies match Allstate in both national prominence and local reputation. With more than 10,800 agencies across the nation, Allstate has a front-row seat to the state of civil discourse.

At the heart of Better Arguments are five core principles to which all sides of an issue pledge to respect: 

  • Take winning off the table
  • Prioritize relationships and listen passionately 
  • Pay attention and respect context 
  • Embrace vulnerability 
  • Make space for new ideas and room to transform

In two pilot sessions, Better Arguments dove right into big issues, including race, class and neighborhood identity. The first pilot took place in downtown Detroit in March 2019. This event, held with local partner Urban Consulate, brought 200 people together from all walks of life. The event addressed tensions between longtime Detroiters and newcomers as the city adapts to a time of rapid change and growth. 

Everyone in the room of all ages and races and histories was willing to engage in arguments and discussions, not in order to win but in order to understand

It wasn’t an easy day. There was palpable anger about cultural loss, economic inequality, favoritism in inner-city investment, and the stereotyping of people and their neighborhoods. But as the day’s discussion moved ahead, the participants largely held true to the pillars of Better Arguments. “Everyone in the room of all ages and races and histories was willing to engage in arguments and discussions, not in order to win but in order to understand,” said Eric Liu of the Aspen Institute. “When you do that, a space for a ‘new possible’ opens up. Trust begets trust, even if hard things are being said. I was surprised how readily people got to that honest but open place.,” said Lauren Hood, a longtime resident and entrepreneur. “I came in thinking that people are tired of these conversations. I’m leaving thinking there is room to convene more people about these topics.”

The second pilot, “TechBoom Tension in Denver,” was held in June 2019 and was smaller by design. It convened 120 residents to talk about the consequences, intended and otherwise, of the influx of high-tech workers into the Mile-High City. The event began with remarks by local and national leaders, including Colorado Governor Jared Polis, and then moved to discussion of issues such as income inequality and housing displacement. The Denver event built on what was learned from Detroit but also offered new approaches for encouraging people to live out the principles of Better Arguments. After the meeting, participants were invited to provide ideas, with three of them receiving seed funding from The Better Arguments Project. Danielle Lammon, a Denver-based Allstate agency owner, commented after the event, “I've watched the city's growth and development change over time. At Allstate, we believe local communities have the power to engage more constructively about the ideas that divide us. Businesses should do more to strengthen local communities and we want to create a positive impact in Denver by seeking out solutions to divisive issues.”

Today, Allstate and its partners are committed to extending the scope and scale of the Better Arguments Project across the country. COVID-19 may have limited the ability for people to gather together physically in 2020, but the power of The Better Arguments Project lives on. New resources were recently launched to facilitate conversations in virtual environments. Additionally, the principles of The Better Arguments Project, which help us hear each other across our differences, are more relevant now than ever as tensions about racism and inequity intensify across the country. “Conflict is very real in our lives right now,” said Stacy Sharpe, Allstate’s head of Corporate Brand. “How we handle conflict can change everything. The central concept of The Better Arguments Project is that it is healthy to disagree. Better Arguments gives us the space to be vulnerable, so we can open ourselves up to another point of view. Our goal is to help our country acknowledge differences, bridge divides and create a more civil society.”

To learn more, visit betterarguments.org.