How to Decide Who’s a Conversational Bully

“I’m done here. You don't care about content. You’re just out to win the debate”

Posted Mar 09, 2015

We all know what it’s like to debate with people who don’t care about content—people who will say anything that makes us wrong and them right. It’s tiresome and not worth it.

We also know what it’s like to be ignored by people who unfairly accuse us of “just out to win” when we’re not. That’s frustrating too.

Indeed, accusing our debate opponents of just trying to win can be a way of just trying to win. What's doubly frustrating is the deep hypocrisy of someone who claims they're better at something that we think they're worse at. The exceptionally closed-minded person who postures as more open-minded than us drives us crazy.

The natural tendency is to trust our guts on who is just out to win. That can turn us into closed-minded egomaniacs. Whenever someone disagrees with us, we can simply attack their character. Accuse them of being closed-minded egomaniacs and we’ve won.

So what to do? The answer can’t be simply listening to everyone as though they really care about content because often they don’t and you’re wasting your time taking them seriously. Nor can it be simply ignoring everyone who seems stubborn.

The trick then is to educate our guts about how to discern more carefully who really is just trying to win. It’s not hard, though it is guesswork. That is, you can only make educated bets about who is and isn’t worth debating—bets that could prove wrong in the long run.

There are three basic reasons why people will be unreceptive to your arguments:

  1. They can’t agree with you: They’re not smart enough, or their perspective isn’t wide enough. It’s not their fault. They can’t help it. They’re not just trying to win. Even though your points are valid, your point of view is simply beyond these folks.
  2. They won’t agree with you: They are perfectly capable of understanding your valid arguments, but they choose not to for self-indulgent reasons. They are just out to win.
  3. They shouldn’t agree with you: They have considered your perspective and it doesn’t apply to them. Maybe they just disagree with it, which they’re entitled to do. Maybe they're from a different culture or subscribe to a different moral system. Apparently, there are lots of moral systems in this world. And maybe you’re just plain wrong. None of us can rule that out.

This is a maddening trio because these three interpretations point to opposite solutions. If they can’t agree, you should accommodate them. Try to convey a simpler message, work with them, and accept their limitations. If they won’t agree with you, do the opposite. Push them harder, corner them, and force them to face into your point of view. If they shouldn’t agree with you, consider changing your mind, or at least agreeing to disagree. In other words, you face a tough judgment call about whether to write them off or keep trying. You can't do both at once.

Some people are dumb, and some people are dumb like a fox, strategically ignoring your position because it accommodates their indulgences. We debate whether politicians are ignorant or just shrewd and well we should. Whenever society falls toward decay, it’s because the shrewd promote ignorant messages to the ignorant—people who make themselves feel smarter by pretending their simpler solution is smart.

It’s easier to walk away in some situations than in others. If you don’t need their agreement, then you can afford to agree to disagree and go your separate ways. If a failure to agree will cost you something important, it’s harder. It’s easy to live and let live with people you don’t live with.

There is a fourth interpretation. They didn’t agree with you, who knows why? When you walk away, you place a bet that further debate isn’t worth your time. Is it that couldn’t, wouldn’t, or shouldn’t agree with you? You give up on trying to analyze it. All you know is that they didn’t.

Deciding who is just out to win is not as easy as our guts intuit. And you can be as closed-minded as anyone simply by pretending it’s easy. Our debates would be more productive if we remembered that deciding who is playing a game of “winupsmanship” is a tough judgment call. That way, we can focus on the evidence.

In general, if you’re dealing with someone who has a fast and easy way to deflect every claim you make and in particular a generic rhetorical deflection, you can bet you’re dealing with someone who is just out to win.

A lot of people unwittingly embrace ideologies because they’re packaged with a complete set of rhetorical moves to protect them from all opposition. They may think they’ve bought the content of their ideology but it actually matters little to them. They subscribe for the know-it-all confidence the ideology provides.

This applies to ideology across the spectrum, from the left to the right, on spiritual, philosophical, and cultural matters, and it tends to spread like a cultural epidemic because the easiest way to protect yourself against people who are just out to win is to find an equally debate-proof belief ideology.

When everyone has a gun, you’ll be tempted to get one too. When everyone has an ideology, you’ll be tempted likewise. Resist the temptation.