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When to Engage in an Argument and When to Walk Away

To be or not to be... in an argument.

Key points

  • When a passionate dispute arises, often only two resolution options are available—fight the opponent or avoid the discussion.
  • Avoiding an argument can sometimes make sense, such as when one wants to preserve the relationship with the other without conceding.
  • Methodically thinking through a conflict reveals that there's more than one way to "win."

One car cuts off another, a hand gesture is made, shots are fired, and someone ends up dead.

That’s right, I’m talking about road rage, something which happens often enough that we actually have a name for it. But would you consider a road rage incident to be a type of argument? After all, those involved might not even exchange any words. And yet it very much is a type of argument. At its heart, an argument is any situation in which two parties are in conflict and both parties feel that they are in the right and are not ready, able, or willing to think otherwise. Sometimes this can result in two people yelling at each other over who was first in a supermarket checkout line. Other times, tragically, it can result in a senseless act of violence.

A violent outcome isn’t as likely to happen in organizational settings, but neither is it unheard of, e.g., consider the cases of disgruntled employees who have gone “postal.” (Yet another thing that we, unfortunately, have a name for.) Our increasingly combative culture makes arguments not only inevitable but all too frequent. At the same time, we as a society have room for a lot of improvement when it comes to dealing with conflict effectively. In extreme situations, where there is already an intense conflict and gridlock is present, a number of different approaches theoretically exist, but only two are viable, with the others all being impractical or just not feasible.

The Five Common Methods of Conflict Resolution

In order to understand which approaches potentially are effective and which ones are not, let’s first examine them all. In psychology, research around conflict analysis consistently produces—in one form or another—five common methods of dispute resolution. Explanations can get pretty academic, but there’s a way that they can be simplified. Basically, anytime a dispute arises, both the substance of the dispute (i.e., your viewpoint) and the relationship between the parties are implicated, which sets up the following options:

  1. Collaborate: You fight for or defend your viewpoint and also preserve the relationship by creating a win-win situation.
  2. Compete: You prioritize fighting for or defending your viewpoint to the point of possibly damaging the relationship.
  3. Compromise: You fight for or defend your viewpoint and also preserve the relationship by having both sides settle for a suboptimal outcome.
  4. Accommodate: You focus on preserving the relationship but at the cost of sacrificing or betraying your viewpoint.
  5. Avoid: You don’t fight for or defend your viewpoint but you don’t sacrifice or betray it either. It’s not that you’re not committed to your viewpoint, but at the same time, you’re either not willing to risk damaging the relationship or the fight just doesn’t seem worth it.

Which approaches are best? Well, it depends on the situation. Remember, the starting assumption of this post is that we are talking about conflict situations in which there is an intense impasse or stubborn gridlock because both sides strongly hold passionate viewpoints about an issue or problem.

“Collaborate,” in which you try to reach a win-win outcome, is not going to work in this situation. If you’re both positive your way is the only way, you’re not going to find a win-win. How, for example, could you create a win-win situation where one side is pro-choice and the other side is resolutely pro-life and the only thing they can agree on is there is no in-between?

“Compromise” doesn’t offer much hope either. Remember, this is a situation where the participants have diametrically opposed views that are deeply rooted in personal values. The example of abortion applies here as well.

“Accommodate?" I don’t think so. This involves going along to get along. Yes, you value the relationship, but pretending to agree with something you are in staunch disagreement with is a bridge too far for many.

All that’s left is “avoid” and “compete,” and these are the two available options we find ourselves wrestling with when it comes to any of the hot-button issues of the day.

The “avoid” approach makes a lot of sense in a number of situations even if you care very much about your viewpoint. It could be that you don’t care about the relationship and, therefore, you couldn’t care less whether the other person accepts your viewpoint or not. The effort isn’t worth it. Or it could be that you do care about the relationship, and you want to preserve it, and winning the argument could damage the relationship. At the same time, you don’t want to use the “compromise” or “accommodate” approaches either because that would mean conceding. “Avoid” can work in this situation precisely because you are not conceding. You can’t concede if you never argue in the first place.

On the flip side, however, there may be situations where you feel that you can’t remain silent, and you feel compelled to fight for or defend your view, even if it means placing a valued relationship at risk. In such a situation, you may wish to choose the “compete” approach. Here’s where discretion is crucial, however. Competing doesn’t mean you have to be overly aggressive or uncivil, necessarily, just that you’re willing to push your viewpoint harder and more tenaciously.

Whether you choose to “compete” or “avoid,” a highly influential and persuasive individual should always try to apply the other principles we’ve covered in this post. In any dispute, you want to 1) remember the one mantra of saying or doing what’s effective, 2) attempt to apply the arguments that are most convincing to people, 3) be careful about otherizing, and 4) try to cultivate thick skin and a long fuse because thin skin and a short fuse are a recipe for disaster, especially in an emotionally charged disagreement.

There’s More Than One Way to Win

There’s an obsession in our culture with “winning,” yet the idea of what “winning” actually means is often too limited. When it comes to arguments, we sometimes think that “winning” requires being hard on the problem and hard on the person. This is especially so in cases where each party perceives the other as impervious to facts and logic and basically out of touch with reality, i.e., you cannot separate the person from the problem because on this particular issue the person (and how they think—or don’t think) becomes part of the problem. Believe me, as a former trial lawyer, I understand this dynamic. But if you want to level up your persuasion and influence, then you need to understand that winning takes different forms depending on the situation. Sometimes you may step back and realize getting the person you’re arguing with to see things your way may not be all that important, or maybe not even possible (see political skill rule #2: pick your battles wisely).

Pivoting to an “avoid” situation, if you manage to preserve or strengthen an important relationship by wisely resisting verbal combat on a particular issue, that’s a victory to be celebrated. (My father often humorously opined that you should never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.) Moreover, it can be a far more meaningful victory than if you had stubbornly persisted and prevailed but a valued relationship was damaged in the process. Conversely, in a “compete” situation, a discussion may escalate into a heated argument. Nevertheless, it may be an occasion for you to finally address, say, an elephant in the room that wasn’t being discussed but was undermining the relationship or significantly affecting the way you saw one another, then that too can be a victory of sorts—especially if it clarifies what type of relationship, if any, you’re able to have with that person going forward.

The point is that there’s more than one way to “win” an argument, and there’s more than one way to be persuasive. Being persuasive invariably involves the full range of what, when, where, who, and how calculations. You might be winning arguments in the short-term, but if you’re damaging relationships in the process then you risk squandering your power. Or as Dale Carnegie said, “You can’t win an argument. If you lose it, you lose it: and if you win it, you lose it.” By “lose it,” what he really means is that you’re potentially losing a relationship that you value.

You are now equipped with a way to methodically think through a conflict situation in which both you and the other side feel very strongly about your own viewpoints and in which collaboration, compromise, or accommodation isn’t possible or desirable, and in which the only real options are to compete or to avoid. You also now know that there are numerous ways to “win” an argument and that sometimes the best way to win is to not argue at all.

You just can’t argue with that.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at The Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego.