How Do You Win an Argument?

It's easy to get into arguments, but how can we come out on top?

Posted Oct 01, 2019

AntonioGuillem/iStock
Source: AntonioGuillem/iStock

Political division in America seems to be growing. We must remember that it's not the worst it's ever been. We did have a Civil War, after all. But it's gotten pretty divisive!

This is not only in our government. Heated arguments are dividing workplaces, neighborhoods, faith communities, and homes. Of course, some of the most toxic arguments take place on social media, text, and online. 

I know I've gotten into some of these arguments, despite my best intentions not to. I'm sure you have too — especially since you are reading this! It might not even be about politics or religion. It might be about who does the most housework or who the greatest football quarterback of all time is. Regardless of the topic, when we get into an argument, we are usually "in it to win it." Is there a secret to winning these arguments? Read on (or watch my YouTube video below).

Your Own Experiences with Winning Arguments

What does winning an argument even mean? Typically, we want to convince the other person that we are right, and they are wrong. They want to do the same. Reflect upon your own history of arguments for just a moment. Have you ever won one? What percentage of them end up being a waste of time?

Have you ever argued with anyone about something of importance and convinced them to change their views? About abortion? Gun safety? Global climate change? That Trump is bad/good for America? That Jesus is the only begotten Son of God (or not)? That you do, in fact, way more housework than your partner? How about we flip the question. Has anyone ever convinced you, through arguing, to change your views? 

If you are like most people, convincing others that we are right, and they are wrong almost never happens. I fondly recall my mother saying to me on a number of occasions: "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." Yup, that about captures it, Mom.

Likewise, people seldom can convince us to change our views by arguing. Why is this? Aren't we rational, reasonable human beings?

Our Distorted Lens

As much as we'd like to think we are rational, objective creatures, we often fall short of that aspiration. We have many cognitive biases that keep us believing that we are right and others are wrong. If you are familiar with the Simon & Garfunkel song, The Boxer, there's a great line that's relevant: "All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."  Simon and Garfunkel are describing what is, in effect, known as confirmation bias. That is, we cherry-pick our information to support what we already believe and "disregard the rest." 

The debates we have typically involve "wicked learning environments" instead of "kind learning environments." Simple, clear answers are difficult to find when the issues are inherently messy and complicated. As Ben Franklin remarked, "...but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

What's the best health care system for America? How do we reduce mass shootings? How do we ensure that more kids in America have better access to high quality schools? What do we do about the opioid crisis? How do we achieve peace in the Middle East? Good luck with those! If the answers to such thorny problems were clear and simple, then there wouldn't be any arguments about them to begin with.

What's the Metric?

When we are arguing about any of these thorny topics, what metric are we even using? For instance, some say that too much screen time is harmful (including me). But how is "harm" being measured? Are we looking at rates of depression? Suicide? Life satisfaction? Grades? SAT scores? Relationship difficulties? Day-to-day pleasures or irritability? If you really believe something is worth arguing over, see if you can first establish the metric in question for determining who is correct or incorrect. If we can't agree upon the metric we are using, we can forget about resolving a dispute. 

For instance, if someone were to say something like, "America is the greatest country on Earth," my response would be, "Based on what metric?" If it is based upon having the greatest nuclear arsenal, we indeed might be number one. If it is the average happiness of its citizens, we are not. Finland is number 1 and the U.S. is number 19 according to the 2019 World Happiness Report.  

A really odd thing can happen even when we point to data that undermines the other person's stance. Instead of the "facts" undermining the person's position, they "double down" on their original stance. This is known as the "backfire effect." It's discouraging to realize that our well-reasoned arguments and facts might actually cause the other person's views to strengthen instead of change!

Opinions and Values

"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." —Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Many times when we argue, we are not arguing about facts but about opinions and values. When these are at the heart of the debate, arguments are especially unproductive. Social psychologist Dr. Johnathan Haidt describes this problem in his excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (written before Trump, so things have gotten worse since his book was published).

For instance, some people support Trump because he has, as promised, appointed two conservative justices to the Supreme Court. If one is a liberal and supports liberal values, like the right to choose, then one is likely to be quite upset with both Trump and the appointment of these Supreme Court justices. Those who hold more conservative values are likely to rejoice. If the roles were reversed, the conservatives would be upset and liberals would be rejoicing. No amount of arguing is likely to change one person from a liberal value set to a conservative one or vice versa. 

Being Effective Over Being Right

Much of our happiness in life is nested within our relationships. How we relate to other people matters. We should take great care in choosing whether to argue with someone. We must make an effort to be "effective" in life over being "right." After all, if we damage the relationship by arguing, our happiness and their happiness is diminished. 

This doesn't mean that we should be a doormat. It is important to have values, ideas, opinions, and stances. But arguing seldom produces the desired result. So, we must act skillfully and wisely when it comes to arguments.

So, How Do  We Win an Argument?

If you remember the movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, you might remember the tagline, "The only winning move is not to play." When it comes to winning an argument, the best winning move is to not get in one to begin with. Like the nukes in WarGames that destroy both the USA and the USSR, our arguments usually cause more harm than good. 

Think that's a cop out? Well, if we want to sway other people to our "correct" vision of things, we are most likely to do that by having a strong relationship with them. Ironically, it is through carefully and compassionately listening to others that we are more likely to sway their views. We just have to realize that we are likely to soften our views as well. And you know what? That's okay. We all win when we can connect better with others.