Return to the future

Aristotle has all the answers.

Want to learn about logic, politics, ethics, philosophy or biology? Read Aristotle – he knows. But what about more mundane matters? Can he help us with our everyday problems at home and at work? Of course, Aristotle has all the answers! Take, for example, conflict resolution.

Aristotle tells us that the secret to resolving conflict is shifting tense – grammatical tense, that is.  Instead of letting our arguments take place in the past tense, we should shift them to the future. As we will see, the future focuses on choice and opportunity, while the past tends to be about assigning blame.

In his book Thank you for arguing, Jay Heinrichs explains exactly what Aristotle meant. Imagine you’re at home listening to music and your partner asks you to turn the music down. Depending on how you’re feeling, you could respond in one of two ways:

  1. Blame (past tense focus): It’s not my fault! You’re the one who set the volume last.
  2. Choice (future focus): But is the music too loud or do you want me to put something else on?

Notice how the past tense deals with issues of justice. It’s what Aristotle called ‘forensic’ rhetoric. Forensic arguments help us determine guilt and deliver punishment. Watch any TV courtroom drama and you’ll hear plenty of past tense dialogue. Although it works well for lawyers and detectives, it’s not a recipe for workplace or domestic harmony.

In contrast, the focus on the future avoids conflict. The future tense doesn’t get bogged down in petty arguments over who was right or wrong, it concentrates directly on finding a solution to the problem. Aristotle loved the future tense for just this reason: it argues about choices and helps us decide how to meet our mutual goals. Here’s another example:

My wife: Who drank all the beer?

Me: That’s not the question, is it? The question is: how are we going to keep it from happening again?

All joking aside, we do expect our arguments to achieve something. And if possible, we want everyone to walk away at the end in agreement. But this is impossible when so many arguments degenerate into accusation and counter-accusation. The reality is that most arguments take place in the wrong tense.

If you want more productive arguments, focus on the future! Avoid the negative accusatory tone of questions like ‘why did you send the report late?’ and adopt the more positive future-focused tone of ‘how can you deliver your reports in a more timely manner?’

In short: To unblock the argument, look forwards and not backwards. The past is for blame and the future is for conflict resolution…and Aristotle is forever!