One of life’s most difficult emotional situations is the argument. Whether with someone you love, despise, or don’t even know, conflict can increase anxiety and blood pressure, if not your sense of discomfort. Some people go to great lengths to avoid conflict of any kind, while others seem ready to argue at a moment’s notice. If you’re somewhere in between, as most people are, you may prefer not to argue, but are prepared to do so when necessary.
The question then becomes how to make the argument go your way.
There's plenty of social-science research on conflict and conflict resolution. We know, for example, that in close relationships, there are ways to resolve conflict that improve a couple’s ability to remain together—and other ways that can threaten it.
I’d like to tackle the more general question of how to use what we know about conflict resolution to help you in any kind of dispute, not just one with a romantic partner or family member. I’ve borrowed some ideas from an insightful review by Israeli psychologist Eran Halperin (2014) concerning the roles of emotion and emotion regulation in conflict resolution. Although Halperin applies this model to political conflict, lessons from his work also apply to disputes that operate on a personal rather than global level.
Halperin bases the paper on the cognitive model of emotions, an approach that emphasizes how people’s appraisal or thoughts about a situation shape their feelings—for example, you’re most likely to feel afraid when you feel threatened, and to feel sad when you feel that you’ve lost something. Halperin points out that people’s appraisals can be influenced by the mass media, which can shape the views of people not directly involved in a situation. For example, you may not have personally known a celebrity who has died, but constant exposure to the loss through social media and news coverage can sadden you anyway.
In an argument, your appraisal that you’re losing, your belief that you need to be “right,” and the extent to which you like the other person can all have an impact on the emotions you experience. Extrapolating from Halperin’s model, which also emphasizes the impact of other people’s reactions (such as whether they support you), your emotions can also get aroused by the desire to gain the respect of onlookers—no one enjoys being made to look ignorant in front of others, and when you feel that you’re being made the fool, your outrage only increases. But the angrier you get, the less likely you are to win, because you lose the ability to stand your logical ground.
With these considerations in mind, here are 6 key argument-winning tools.
Keep in mind: Winning an argument doesn’t necessarily mean being the only one who’s right. If your goal is to resolve a conflict, then to “win” might mean you “lose":
- Know your facts. How many times have you made a claim about some piece of trivia only to realize, as soon as you’ve made that claim, that you’re completely wrong? Inevitably, someone challenges you, but because you don’t want to “lose,” you continue to stick to your guns. This is not an ideal way to win (or enter) an argument. In the TV show Psych, the lead character often says when challenged, unconvincingly, “I’ve heard it both ways.” Stop and think before you make such bloopers yourself, and you’ll be less likely to lose, whether the matter is trivia or a truly important career or relationship challenge.
- Be ready to see the other person’s perspective. You don’t have to agree with a foe in order to see his or her perspective. However, if you want to win an argument, you do need to be able to see the world the way your opponent does. Stepping into the mental set of those you argue with allows you to figure out what’s influencing them. Perhaps they’re feeling threatened, anxious, or annoyed. Perhaps they know something that you don’t. In any case, showing empathy will lower the temperature of the debate and allow both of you to come to resolution.
- If you can’t be open-minded, at least seem that way. Becoming defensive is one of the worst ways to win an argument. Don’t let your opponent sense that you’re digging into your position without being willing to consider alternatives. If you appear to be giving the other side’s position a thoughtful review, then the solution you propose will seem to be far more sensible. Furthermore, your opponent may come to your side without your having to do anything other than listen. By letting your opponent speak, you may allow the situation to naturally resolve itself.
- Keep your emotions under control. From the Halperin review, it’s clear that emotions play an important role in conflict by altering how you appraise the situation. In addition, Halperin also pointed out that being able to regulate your emotions is equally important. If you lose your temper, you’ll only antagonize your opponent, which will further heighten his or her wrath, and the process can only escalate upwards. Don’t worry that you'll seem weak by becoming calm in the midst of an argument—you’ll gain points by showing that you can exercise self-control. Who knows, the argument may even end right then and there, once both of you take a more reasoned perspective.
- Remain hopeful that the argument can be resolved. Arguments, by definition, involve negative emotions. In the midst of a screaming fest, it might be hard to see yourself coming out on the other side with your dignity intact. However, invoking the feeling of hope allows you to think more clearly, leading to the possibility that you’ll win by sheer force of logic. As Halperin points out, hope allows you to "come up with creative solutions to the disputes at the core of the conflict” (p. 71). In other words, you may see a way out of what seems to be a locked battle of wills once you believe that there is a way out. This is what happens in ordinary problem-solving, when thinking outside of the box can help all sides come up with a solution. Such an “aha” moment in an argument can lead you straight to victory.
- Respect your opponent. Many arguments have no clear victors: You may get your way, but your relationship or situation is the worse for it. A successful argument within a relationship remains compartmentalized. Don’t let it lead to questioning the entire basis of the relationship. By the same token, don’t insult or degrade your opponent. Even if the individual is someone you’ll never see again, it’s still important to show that you meant “nothing personal” in the dispute.
Halperin, E. (2014). Emotion, emotion regulation, and conflict resolution. Emotion Review, 6(1), 68-76. doi:10.1177/1754073913491844