Tips for the Listener in Understanding & Evaluating Reasoning

Look for main points. Identify the key issue being debated. Identify if the argument is a controversy over definition, fact, value, or policy, and scrutinize the claim according to the norms for those types of argument. Listen for the thesis, previews, main points, and conclusionary remarks to sensitize yourself for further analysis.

Look for sub-claims. Main claims often are made up of a series of sub-claims linked together to form an argument. Charting out how these independent sub-claims are organized can assist in dissecting and responding to an argument.

Pay attention to signposts. Headings and subheading often tip the hand of the speaker, allowing audiences to “guess ahead” to what the speaker is advancing.

Examine context. Fit the argument into scientific, historical, economic, political, or social history. Ask “what ideas does this argument respond to?” and “how might other speakers respond to this argument?”

Scrutinize support and warrants. Since most controversies center on the interpretation of data or the legitimacy of inferences, listeners should examine both to ensure soundness.

Examine potential bias of the author. Experience shapes much argument, so investigating who the author is can shed light on potential biases in their argument. For example, many advocates are funded by groups that have a vested interest in a particular conclusion which could influence the argument unfairly.

Make notes and summaries. Since oral communication is seldom preserved for immediate access, evaluators of oral (and even written) argument should take notes on major themes and arguments for better understanding.

Make special note of confusing sections. Almost all arguments could be more concise or precise—but, if there is a section that is confusing, further focus on that section likely would be productive.

Look for fallacies in reasoning. Some arguments are sound, while some fall prey to bad reasoning. Familiarizing yourself with common fallacies allows you to detect poor reasoning which is crucial to effective evaluation of arguments.

Challenge the advocate. Since even smart people make mistakes, do not assume that the arguer is automatically correct. Feel free to ask questions of the advocate. Dialogue advances argument.

Rephrase arguments. Having summaries in your own words facilitates better comprehension of the argumentative message, often in language and style that is more understandable. Thinking about how you might have advanced a particular argument can expand your understanding.

Break down individual points. Discrete points are often hidden by sheer quantity of information. Outlining, or otherwise demarcating, complex issues can assist listeners in understanding arguments.

Focus on qualifiers and reservations. Statements like “usually,” “generally,” “in most cases,” or “in the case of” often mark places where the arguer is making a claim that could be clarified. A counter-arguer can probe the conditions under which the statement is true by examining the qualifiers and reservations to an argument.