Arguments, for the vast majority, can feel very uncomfortable. They can be volatile, grating, and utterly draining. Depending on how we’ve experienced argument before, the very thought of one may sparks a sense of dread from somewhere deep in the mind

Sometimes that dread springs from the uncertainty that conflict brings. Sometimes it can be our dislike of rocking the boat or the raw sting of emotional friction. For others, it can be the fear of escalation, and the way in which some people, while under stress, use their words as weapons.

This apprehension means that many choose to flee from a brewing argument; they pander to the person who hints at conflict; or they avoid situations altogether despite their gut telling them something is wrong. But much like a storm, an argument carries within it the potential for change, and with that change, the potential for discovery and personal growth.

So why write about it?

Well, when we find ourselves without the tools needed to navigate that storm, the experience can sweep us up and be seen as an overwhelming assault on our senses. The argument opens us up to attack, both verbal and, if it escalates, physical.

Missteps in an argument can erode our relationships, can damage our reputation, and can impact how we see ourselves and our self-confidence.

Without the tools to deal with it, we can fall to the mercy of the argument, incapable of steering our way through it or managing our emotional reactions when it becomes difficult or combative.

So, we must learn to welcome the storm not as a force of destruction but as a force of transformation. With the right mindset and the right tools, we can transform ourselves from being victims of the conflict to becoming its navigators. Not only this, but when we are comfortable with it, we are better able to enforce our boundaries because we’re no longer afraid of the potential pushback.

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The Story of the Two Farmers:

It was a normal day in ancient Greece, two farmers had begun work under the warmth of the morning sun, and the air above the ground had just begun to shimmer with the heat. However, the fertile valleys soon began to echo their voices as they engaged in an escalating argument, the noise disturbing the otherwise peaceful hum of the countryside.

One was a man named Lysander, broad of shoulder, with a fiery temperament to match. The other, Theron, was a man of calm mind, a stillness that reflected the valley they lived in. The two men stood in the heart of the rolling hills. Two men bound by the soil yet divided by perspective.

Their contention was simple: a matter of land boundaries, a dispute as old as the rocks beneath their feet. Lysander’s sheep had been grazing on Theron’s land.

Lysander, driven by passion and pride, saw the disagreement as an assault on his honor. His words became sharp, his voice a thunderous echo against the verdant hillsides. Anger had begun to twist his features, knotting his brows and setting his teeth on edge.

Theron, on the other hand, regarded the dispute with serenity and pragmatism. He saw it not as an affront to his honor but as a problem seeking resolution. The lines on his face remained untroubled. When he spoke, his words, unlike his counterpart’s, were steady and measured.

Lysander’s rage soared like a tempest, and he lost himself in the turbulence of his irritation. His mind was clouded, and his judgment was impaired. He lashed out with his words, each syllable intended to sear and burn. He had lost control, and his behavior was now being swept up in the moment. He was a puppet on the strings of his circumstances.

Theron, undisturbed by the raging storm of Lysander’s fury, stood firm on the rock of his principles. He recognized Lysander’s wrath as a tempest beyond his control. He did not attempt to quell it, nor did he fan its flames. Instead, he let it rage, let it spend its energy. He would not allow his actions to be dictated by the things around him, so he made his point clearly. Lysander’s sheep were on his land. That was the simple truth—nothing more, nothing less.

As the morning sun rose to midday, the argument had spent itself. Lysander, now exhausted, and seeing that his assertiveness had not chipped away at Theron’s resolve, had no choice but to accept what he had already known: he had let his sheep wander.

Theron, still measurably calm, thanked Lysander for his understanding and suggested they help each other build a fence to prevent the same thing from happening again.

One could either be a Lysander, consumed by the emotion of their passions, or have their peace of mind sacrificed at the altar of anger. Or one could choose to be a Theron, and make the deliberate choice to decide how to respond, rejecting the pressure of external events to dictate how we behave and feel.

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Section I: “The Stoic Frame of Mind”

Understanding the Stoic Perspective

Our frame of mind at any given moment will have a huge impact on our ability to manage all kinds of stress. If we see the world in a destructive way, or if we see ourselves in an unfavorable way, we are far more likely to address our stressors through an unproductive lens and suffer more as a result.

On the other hand, if we’re able to learn how to be deliberate and constructive in the way we view who we are and what happens to us, we are far more likely to be able to manage our reactions to adversity, and as a result, we’re better able to remain calm and resilient to suffering.

To help us with this, we’re going to take a look at a few core Stoic principles:

  • Control

  • Compassion

  • Emotional Reaction


The Stoic philosopher Epictetus lectured in ancient Rome around 93AD. He believed that a great deal of our suffering (suffering that can be avoided) comes from our inability to determine what is within our control and what is not.

Our failure to categorize what is within our control and what is not will often lead us to fall into two traps:

  1. We try and control the things outside our control

  2. We don’t take responsibility for the areas of our lives within our control.

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”


When we try to control the uncontrollable, we end up spending our energy and time wastefully on things that will remain as they are, regardless of whether or not we try to make them a certain way. This ultimately means that no matter how much energy we put into getting the result we want, the outcome will remain a product of chance, the laws of nature, and the world around us. If we imagine the life of a person who spends their time trying to change what cannot be changed, it’s easy to see how such a life, over time, can lead to frustration, bitterness, anger, and hopelessness. Again and again, the world will unfold how it will, not how the individual wants it to.

Similarly, when we don’t focus on the things within our control (our thoughts, actions, reactions, beliefs, and perceptions), we miss the greatest opportunity to effect change in our lives. This ultimately means that we allow the world around us and the people around us to control our inner world, and our wellbeing will come and go depending on the quality of our environment. This is not a resilient way to live.

These two pitfalls in combination can lead to lives of suffering, anger, and resentment.

On the other hand, if we learn to accept that which is outside the reach of our control and accept that we have full control and ownership over our own actions, we do two things:

  1. We avoid the suffering that comes from seeing our actions have no affect on the world around us, specifically what we can’t control

  2. We avoid the suffering that comes when we allow our thoughts and actions to be controlled by our circumstances.

In the context of an argument, this means accepting that other people will behave as they will, not how we want them to. And that we are fully responsible for how we respond to them.

“The Stoics believed in social reform, but they also believed in personal transformation.  More precisely, they thought the first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances.  The Stoics would add that if we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life.”

—William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, p. 221.


A large part of compassion is looking at another person and trying to understand what past experiences they might have been through that influence their actions in the present and what beliefs they hold that inform their decisions.

This is particularly important and difficult when a person is being destructive or behaving in a way that we disagree with.

The Stoics believed that all humans are part of a common whole and that part of our responsibility is to care for one another and work together. To this end, it is a helpful skill to be able to look at another person, one who is acting destructively, and try to see them as a product of their past, not simply as a bad person in the present.

When we do this, we begin to understand the “why” of what they are doing, not just the “what”, and when we know the why, we are better able to understand their motives, fears, insecurities, defences, unconscious patterns of thought, and beliefs that drive behavior.

“For as these were made to perform a particular function, and, by performing it according to their own constitution, gain in full what is due to them, so likewise, a human being is formed by nature to benefit others, and, when he has performed some benevolent action or accomplished anything else that contributes to the common good, he has done what he was constituted for, and has what is properly his.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.42

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Section II: “Preparation”

Picture, if you will, a gladiator preparing to step onto the sand of a grand Roman arena. He adorns himself in his armor, each piece strapped and clipped in, crafted to his frame. Each section serving a specific purpose in his defense.

This is an image we can use for ourselves when we consider adopting emotional armor in our Stoic approach to argument and conflict. The Stoic, too, prepares and armors up, and while this isn’t with physical shields and swords, it is with a mental armor of wisdom, emotional resilience, and a understanding of human nature.

Stoic Wisdom as Armor

At the forefront of this metaphorical armor is the Stoic virtue of wisdom, the helmet that protects the Stoic’s mind from the arrows of heated arguments, attacks on character, and unfounded claims. Stoics prize wisdom highly, seeing it as the guiding principle that shapes people’s actions and responses to the world around them. This wisdom isn’t just the accumulation of knowledge, but also the ability to apply knowledge in a practical, beneficial manner, especially while under stress and pressure.

Before an argument, a Stoic prepares by equipping themselves with the necessary knowledge about the topic at hand. They research, study, and strive to understand the subject from different perspectives. They approach every potential disagreement with a learner’s mindset, opening their minds to new ideas and opinions, including the fact that they might be wrong.

This intellectual preparedness goes beyond simply gaining an advantage in the argument. For the Stoic, knowledge serves as a defence against dogmatism and closed-mindedness, allowing them to engage in debates with humility. Armed with wisdom, they can address points and counterpoints with clarity and precision, defusing tension and promoting mutual understanding.

Emotional Resilience as Armor

Just as the gladiator’s breastplate guards their chest, emotional resilience can protect the Stoic’s peace of mind when they find themselves in the middle of a conflict. Stoicism teaches that emotions are not bad in themselves; it’s our reaction to them that can cause us problems. Therefore, Stoics make a conscious effort to develop their emotional resilience—the ability to resist acting on the impulses of their emotions—and moderate their behavior when they feel strong emotion, rather than allowing that emotion to control their behavior.

Emotional resilience involves maintaining a calm and balanced state of mind, regardless of the emotional whirlwind that an argument might stir up within us. It means recognizing one’s emotions, understanding the origin of the emotion, and responding to them in a constructive way. It involves recognizing when anger or frustration start to rise and knowing how to calm these emotions to maintain clear and effective communication.

Understanding Human Nature as Armor

The final piece of the Stoic’s armor is their understanding of human nature. The Stoics recognize that each person, including themselves, is a product of various elements that make us who we are:

  • experiences

  • beliefs

  • social conditioning

  • biases, and more

They approach every argument aware that these factors heavily influence the way people perceive and respond to situations.

Armed with this understanding, Stoics approach arguments with a heightened sense of empathy and patience. They don’t view their debate opponents as adversaries to be defeated, but as fellow humans with their own unique perspectives. They anticipate the emotional reactions, defensive tendencies, and stubborn biases that can surface during a disagreement, preparing themselves to respond with kindness, respect, and understanding.

In addition, this understanding of human nature allows Stoics to reflect on their own biases and preconceptions. They strive to recognize and address these biases, thereby ensuring that their own perception isn’t clouding their judgment. This level of self-awareness is a powerful shield, protecting them from the pitfalls of ego and close-mindedness.

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Section III: “Engagement”

As we’ve seen, one way Stoics can prepare themselves for conflict is the development of wisdom, emotional resilience, and an understanding of human nature. However, their strategy doesn’t end with preparation; it extends into the flow of the conflict itself.

When the back and forth of the disagreement begins, the Stoic employs a set of tools guided by their philosophical principles, transforming the battlefield of argument into a forum for growth and mutual understanding. Again, the aim here is not to defeat your opponent in the traditional sense of the word, but to find the truth in either side of the argument.

Active Listening: The Art of Silent Engagement

The first tool in the Stoic’s engagement toolbox is active listening, a skill that’s often underrated in its power and the impact it can have on the course and the tone of an argument. The Stoics understood that effective communication isn’t just about eloquent speeches or pointed rebuttals; it begins with sincere, attentive listening. This is a skill that’s required to develop wisdom. If we can’t understand the nature of the opposition and their stance in the argument, we won’t be able to plot the best path through it.

Active listening means fully focusing on the speaker, understanding their perspective, and validating their feelings without rushing to a respond or counter-arguement. It involves avoiding distractions, seeking clarification when necessary, and providing feedback that indicates understanding. This isn’t about conceding a point or weakening one’s position; it’s about creating a space of respect and consideration that fosters a constructive discussion.

“In conversation, one should attend closely to what is being said, and with regard to every impulse attend to what arises from it; in the latter case, to see from the first what end it has in view, and in the former, to keep careful watch on what people are meaning to say.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.4

By employing active listening, the Stoic sends a clear message: “I want to hear your viewpoint and want to understand it fully.” This not only helps defuse tension but also promotes empathy and understanding, turning the argument from a battle into a dialogue.

“The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and talk the less.”

– Zeno of Citium, Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers, ‘Zeno’ ch. 7

Emotional Control: The Shield Against Conflict

Arguments can fan the flames of strong emotions: frustration, anger, even fear. But the Stoics believed that the use of emotional control was a vital tool that prevented these flames from consuming the discussion.

Stoics are mindful of their emotional state during an argument. They recognize the initial stirrings of negative emotions in the people around them and take steps to calm them, maintaining their equilibrium. They don’t suppress their feelings; instead, they manage them, ensuring that emotions serve as guides rather than masters.

When faced with a particularly heated exchange, a Stoic might pause, take a deep breath, or even propose a break until both parties can discuss the matter calmly. By maintaining emotional control, they prevent the argument from spiralling into an emotional battleground, focusing instead on the issue at hand.

Empathy and Understanding:

Finally, throughout the argument, Stoics strive to maintain empathy and understanding. They remember that behind every argument is a human being with their own experiences, emotions, and perspectives. They seek to understand these perspectives, to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes, so to speak.

This empathy isn’t a sign of weakness or concession; rather, it’s a testament to the Stoic’s profound understanding of human nature. It allows them to navigate the argument with compassion, respect, and patience, creating an atmosphere conducive to resolution and growth.

Stoics don’t aim to ‘defeat’ their opponent in an argument but to reach a point

“To fulfill my social duty—to do my duty to my kind—I must feel a concern for all mankind.  I must remember that we humans were created for one another, that we were born, says Marcus, to work together the way our hands or eyelids do.  Therefore, in all I do, I must have as my goal ‘the service and harmony of all.’  More precisely, ‘I am bound to do good to my fellow-creatures and bear with them’”

– William B. Irvine writes in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy,(p.129)

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