How Can You Tell Who's "Just Trying To Win"?

13 ways to tell whether someone is being a tyrant

Posted Apr 08, 2014

Last week I listed 19 ways to peeve your lover (or colleague, friend, parent, or child)—ways to make the problem always be them, never you.

We’re peeved by people who assume they’re always right, no matter what, people who act like mercenary lawyers on permanent retainer to themselves—they're ready to win for their clients, no matter the cause, regardless of whether they're in the right. And we peeve people when we act like that ourselves.

No one likes a tyrant.

But sometimes we are right. Sometimes we do have to stick to our guns on a range of issues so large that others could easily accuse us inaccurately of being tyrants just out to win. So we can’t tell who’s a tyrant just by how persistently they stick to their guns. If that was all that mattered, we might have concluded that Gandhi, King, and Churchill were all tyrants, or at least stubborn egomaniacs out for glory at all costs, always insisting they were in the right.

So how can we tell who’s disagreeing with us, even if persistently, on truly substantive grounds and not out of some automatic self-defense or self-promotion mode—and who's really just a tyrant out to win for the sake of winning?

The question troubles us because if someone disagrees with us on substantive grounds, we ought to attend to the substance of their argument. But if their opposition is simply a ploy to win, we should ignore their arguments, because they doesn’t even care or believe in them.

“Is he just trying to win?” is really not a question to be taken lightly. Think of how much woe comes from taking tyrants seriously—and from the opposite, assuming someone serious is a tyrant. We should be careful how we answer the question about others and about the signals we send to others about us. 

Here are some symptoms, or "tells," of the tyrant. No single one is a surefire signal, but they’re what we have to work with:

  1. They don’t admit to making real mistakes.

  2. They don’t preface what they say with signals that they know their opinions are subjective. They never say “I think…”; “I feel…”; or “I could be wrong, but I believe…”

  3. They voice their opinions as pronouncements from on high without substantive support for them.

  4. They consistently change the subject back to why they’re right and you’re wrong. 

  5. They show no real curiosity about your opinions. They don’t ask real questions—maybe just rhetorical ones.

  6. If challenged to restate your opinion and rationale, they can’t do it convincingly. They might do it mockingly, but will quickly return to why you’re just wrong.

  7. They pull rank as authorities on everything. They don’t see themselves as advocates but as judges presiding over your case.

  8. They rely mainly on rhetorical devices to make their arguments, those all-purpose ways of claiming the last word.

  9. They can’t identify common ground with you. They assume that since you don’t agree on the means, you must have different, less creditable ends. For example: “You don’t believe in smaller government? You must not care about freedom!”

  10. They spend at least as much time attacking your character as they do your arguments.

  11. They’re quick to assume you’re a fool or, ironically, a bully—just because you disagree with them. 

  12. Their arguments boil down to, “I know you are but what am I?”

  13. They show few signs of being able to doubt themselves, even for 10 seconds at a time.

Deciding that someone is just arguing because they want to win is an imperfect art. Conflict can make any of us assume our opponents are just out to win; conversely, when we agree with someone, we can be blind to the fact that they really are just out to win. When we assume that someone is just out to win, the impulse to fight back is strong. When we make that assumption incorrectly, we become the tyrants, just out to win.

I like the expression, "Don’t fight with a pig. You’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it.” There are times you have to fight with a pig—for example, when living under martial law imposed by a real tyrant.  Still, exit is often the best solution. I’ve got a new approach that I’ve applied a few times to good effect:

He: There’s a problem here and it’s all you. You’re wrong about this and that and the other thing.

Me: Wow. Amazing. We are so on the same page. See, I’ve been noticing our incompatibility too. You like things this way and I like them that way. You believe this and I believe that. I’m glad we see so eye to eye on not seeing eye to eye. Definitely time to go our separate ways.

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