How to Win an Argument

Most people have an extreme dislike of dealing with interpersonal conflicts. They simply don’t know how to utilize its enormous potential for learning, growth, progress and, ultimately, for enhancing cooperation.

There’s a lot of disagreement about most things these days. Our differences, however petty, drive the news cycle. For some, it’s bred in the bone. For others, it isn’t a matter of being more mean spirited or cranky; it’s because they feel more at liberty to say what’s on their mind regardless of the consequences. Social media appears to be the preferred vehicle of choice, largely because it offers a degree of anonymity when desired. Its incessant messages arrive void of body language and intonation, both of which are essential to discerning meaning. And the more we disagree with one another, without some form of acknowledgment or response, the angrier we become.

I have nothing against disharmony of views. In fact, I encourage it. Properly handled, it’s a wonderful opportunity for necessary and constructive change. Done well, it’s an art form and an essential skill for accomplishing one’s goals. The first step in using our disagreements to advantage, however small, is to understand its various forms. The most common is name calling, as when someone says “you’re an idiot.”

Slightly more difficult to handle than disparaging personal comments is the ad hominem attack – attributing differences of opinion to the speaker’s traits rather than what is being said. Another kind of dispute occurs when we choose to respond to the intonation of the message rather than its content. When tone offends, we often react to the implied sarcasm or flippancy without assessing what could be of immense value. Good listeners are fundamentally patient and curious. The brain responds well to feedback that stimulates our creativity and drive but shuts down in the face of criticism (releases cortisol not dopamine).

Disagreements become even more intense when facts are in contradiction, especially when there’s little or no compelling data to support or refute them. A good counter argument requires unassailable evidence, critical reasoning and artful phrasing. Unfortunately, too many opposing arguments go in an entirely different direction than addressing the particular issue in dispute. People often argue passionately about concerns that are fundamentally unrelated or become so entwined in their apparent differences that they don’t realize they’re actually talking about entirely contradictory things.

To refute an argument, you typically have to repeat something the other person said. Without context, this becomes problematical – the proverbial slippery slope. Be careful where you may be headed if this is a preferred tactic. Rarely is it effective. Success is more likely when you quote the words central to their argument, but with which you disagree, before you try to explain why you think they’re mistaken. If you can’t find and repeat the critical assertion with which you take issue, then you’re arguing with a straw man of your own creation.

To win more arguments that you lose, here are a few pointers. First, decide whether it’s worth the time and effort required to convince them. Choose battles that are meaningful and important. Ask yourself what you really want to accomplish and try not to let your ego get in the way of your objective. Recognize the encounter may entail risk or take more time than you may otherwise be willing to invest. If you decide it is worth it, then consider how to frame your argument so the other will want to listen. No use talking if it goes in one ear and exits out the other. This is where “magical (persuasive) phrases” are required (another topic for another blog).

If you can, choose an appropriate environment. If the person you’re debating is angry, anxious or depressed, or if she (or he) is in a public space, effective listening and thus comprehension may be difficult. Think about when, where, and how you are most receptive to contrary views and use that information to behave empathically. Use “I” statements such as “I feel (or think)” or “In my opinion.” Stating your views as opinion rather than fact lowers the confrontation climate and encourages the recipient to feel less defensive. Don’t talk too fast, too loud or too aggressively. Allow interruptions and ask for questions. This is a way of measuring whether you’ve been heard correctly. It’s my experience that most people talk themselves into trouble when afforded opportunities to do so. Don’t belabour your points – lengthy or repeated verbiage becomes intense and exaggerated and invariably makes the other “tune out.”

Acknowledge and build on partial agreement. Cut them some slack – intellectual dishonesty is often unintentional because people frequently don’t know what they’re talking about. Someone arguing against the tone may believe he’s saying something important that you haven’t heard. Lessen the judgment and increase the compassion. Talk about specifics, not generalities. Don’t theorize or speculate – make it objective, understandable, honest and fair-minded. Focus on solutions, not grievances. Avoid “always” and “never” (because there are always exceptions to the rule). Use supportive non-verbals when they continue to disagree. Ignore (don’t breathe life into) dishonesty; you’ll only energize if not legitimize it.

Don’t correct their grammar or harp on minor, inconsequential mistakes in names or numbers (unless their argument depends entirely on such things); otherwise, you’re just playing a game of “gotcha” and that’s not fighting fair. Rather than forcibly pressing your point, help people understand it by suggesting (later if you prefer) an authoritative article on the subject – third parties are deemed to be less biased and are frequently more eloquent, if not more expert, than you. Your goal is to win the argument, not to take the credit for doing so.

It helps if you are not already typecast as disagreeable or defensive, because people are then reacting to your label rather than your point of view. If you want them to agree with you, start by agreeing with them. Say “no” without saying “no” by providing reasons that align with their needs. Such as (to your child): “Yes, you can watch TV after you’ve done your homework.” Or (to your boss): “Yes, I can do that if you don’t mind this other project being a bit delayed.”

Learning how to disagree makes conversations more useful, beneficial and informative for both parties. It builds bridges rather than burning them. And it makes people happier. If you study conversations, as I do, you discover a lot about yourself. You become a better negotiator – which essentially means a better parent, partner, colleague and person. And you also win a lot more arguments without leaving your adversary with a feeling of humiliation, annoyance and despair or, worse, the need for retribution.