Winning isn’t everything, but it sure is nice. When you don’t see eye to eye with someone, here are the best tricks for winning that argument.
Convince Them With Confidence
If you want to be the winner of the argument, act like you are. Speak confidently, be concise and try not to repeat yourself. Give the appearance that you truly know what’s right from the beginning, even if you don’t have all of the facts. Having facts that can support your stance is helpful, sure, but being convincing matters more.
In fact, one study published in the journal Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes found evidence that suggests a group of people will believe a confident speaker before they will believe someone more knowledgeable. Watch politicians when they debate. They probably have no idea what to say sometimes, but they speak with authority to come across as trustworthy. Just stating facts can also seem defensive if it isn’t done right. Use facts if you have them, but keep the confidence cranked up to the max. The more you look like you know what you’re talking about, the higher your chances you’ll come out on top.
Avoid the Most Common Argument Fallacies
If you want to increase your odds of winning, keep your focus on “not losing” and sustaining your argument. Winning an argument often comes down to who can go the longest without contradicting themselves and keeping sound logic, not direct persuasion of the other party. A battle of attrition, as opposed to all out combat.
There are more ways to lose an argument than win one, so it’s important to be aware of the many logical fallacies that can incriminate you. Here are some of the fallacies that will lose you the argument before it even starts:
- Anecdotal Fallacy: Using a single personal experience as the foundation of your argument or your big piece of evidence. For example, your phone may have broken right after you bought it, but you can’t use that to argue that those phones are not worth the purchase by others.
- Confirmation Bias: Ignoring certain facts because of personally held beliefs. For example, you can’t cherry pick evidence that supports your claim and deny the evidence that doesn’t.
- Correlation vs Causation: Assuming something is caused by something else just because they happen to correlate. For example, the number of homeless people in an area might correlate to the crime rate for the same area, but crime doesn’t necessarily cause homelessness and homelessness doesn’t necessarily cause crime. For more examples, check out Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations to see how absurd these types of arguments can be.
- Straw Man: Making up a scenario to make the opponent look bad. You’re assuming because they think one thing they must think another. For example, if they don’t like orange juice, they must think oranges are bad for people.
- Omniscience: Using statements that imply “all” of something or “every” thing are a certain way. For example, saying something like “all dogs pee on fire hydrants”. This would require you to be omniscient to make such claims, which is not possible.
There are a lot more logical fallacies to consider, but avoiding these three can help you keep your argument on solid ground in the beginning.
Find the Best Evidence You Can (When Possible)
Even if you are confident, knowledge truly is power in an argument. If you’re arguing on the internet, you have the advantage of being able to research as you argue, but arguing in person is a whole different ball game. The best thing you can do is prepare ahead of time (say, if you know certain subjects will come up at that dinner party). That way, when an argument comes up, you’re locked and loaded with answers to show your adversary that you know what’s what. Don’t leave finding information to be a reactionary step. You wouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, so gather up plenty of knowledge on the topics you know you like to argue about so you’re always packing.
If you really want to build your knowledge arsenal, you should:
- Use Google Scholar to find studies and case law.
- Talk to others who can provide accurate information.
- Talk to others who disagree with you, but are willing to see your perspective.
- Ditch the bad evidence you’ve been holding on to.
When you have good evidence, it makes it a lot easier to counter other people’s points while supporting your own.
Be Calm and Courteous — Even If You’re Pretending
Your intent may be to prove the other person wrong, but you can at least pretend to be respectful of their point of view. Even if it’s something that seems completely ludicrous or deeply against your own beliefs, losing your cool could lose you the bout.
Flying off the handle to attack someone on a personal level — also known as the fallacy argumentum ad hominem — is an easy way to send your credibility crashing down. Name calling, attacking a person’s character, and using someone’s beliefs or traits to call their argument into question are big no-nos. For example, you can’t say that someone’s argument about dogs being better than cats is weak because they are also a Republican. It offers no real support to your argument for cats being better and it makes it look like you can’t think of anything better than poking at their personal beliefs.
Listen to what they have to say and take it in. Don’t shake your head while they talk, cut them off mid-sentence or look away like you don’t care about what they’re saying. It might be difficult to stay open-minded when you disagree, but psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne at Psychology Today suggests you at least make it seem like you have an open mind:
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.
If the argument gets emotional — like a couple’s quarrel, for example — you have to recognise that there are two issues to be addressed: both of your emotions and the situation at hand. Rein in the emotions first. Step away for a moment and let yourself cool down before you come back to the argument. If you can keep your cool and show the other person respect, at the very least you can come off as a reasonable person. You also give them a chance to make mistakes and possibly realise they’re in the wrong.
Have Them Thoroughly Explain Their View First
When you can feel an argument brewing, ask your opponent to explain their point of view first. This is an important step to winning. They will likely be more than willing to jump right in, which gives you three major advantages:
- You immediately come across as agreeable and willing to listen. This can disarm them and make it easier for you to persuade them later on.
- You get to listen to what they say and look for weaknesses in their argument.
- You give them a chance to mess up their argument.
Sometimes, less is more. The more you talk, the bigger the chance you’ll say something that can be used against you. So let them talk first to see if they can even support their own argument. They might find that they’re not standing on ground that’s as solid as they thought, or that the “how” of their idea isn’t quite as strong as the “why”. That’s when you swoop in.
If they do manage to explain their stance without fumbling, summarise it back to them to show that you understand it, then provide your counterpoints. When you show that you can clearly see their position, your counterpoints will come across more powerfully because you’re not blowing off what they said. Instead, you’re calling their bet and letting them know that you understand them, but you’re not backing down.
Ask Them the Right Questions to Get Them Going
When you are asking someone to explain their point of view, the right questions can help you break their argument down logically. You might find a solution by understanding each other better without the need for persuasion (which is a different kind of win). Or you might get them to contradict themselves, strengthening your own argument. Word your argument in the form of open-ended questions that force them to address your points.
For example, if you believe everyone should tip 10 per cent at a restaurant, and they believe that tips should only be 5 per cent, you could say something like:
Why do you think servers are undeserving of 10 per cent tips?
Now they have to explain their position whether they like it or not. If they refuse to answer, they lose the argument. If they can’t explain their position, they lose the argument. If they do explain their stance, you can build on their explanation with more questions. Eventually, they will either try to drop the argument in an “agree to disagree” fashion, or they will stumble on their own reasoning and concede.
Stay on Topic (and Don’t Blow Off Their Reasonable Points)
If the other person does say something that sounds reasonable to you, acknowledge it with caution instead of blowing it off. Again, you want to show that you understand them, that you’re an agreeable person, and that you’re not refuting every single word they say. If you denounce every point of theirs, you’ll seem overly defensive and stubborn.
Remember, losing a battle doesn’t mean losing the war. You can’t steamroll people into changing their minds because then they will want to resist it. If you give them a little victory here and there, you can slowly coerce them into seeing your perspective in a much better light. They will see a little common ground and feel like they are being validated, and you’ll move that carrot closer and closer to your side.
If they manage to throw you off with a really good point, try to stay on topic as best you can. Going off topic — or succumbing to the “Red Herring” fallacy — can destroy your credibility, look defensive and start new arguments. Stay focused on the current subject and keep your emotions out of it. On the same note, if you notice your opponent changing the topic, you know you’ve struck a nerve. If you’re dead set on winning the argument, you can keep pushing to make them upset and their argument will likely fall apart in anger.
Look for Consensus to Back You Up
If you’re arguing around others, like at a party or with a group of friends, getting to support your perspective can be swaying. If enough people agree to something it sort of becomes true in a social setting. It may not be 100 per cent factual, but with a little supporting evidence, your buddies can be a better backup than any fact out there.
This can go both ways, though. If they have the power of consensus behind them it can be tough to recover. At that point you can explain that you feel ganged up on and that you we’re only interested in casual debate, but it might be best not to avoid an argument to begin with if you know they have more backup than you. You should note, however, that it’s best to avoid the fallacies of bandwagoning and appealing to authority. If you don’t have any evidence to support your claim at all, you and your group of supporters are just bullying people into admitting they’re wrong. Support is good, but you still want to keep your argument sound without them.
Change What Winning Means to You
You may not change the other person’s mind, but there are other ways to win. If you change what winning means to you, the possibilities are endless. Winning can be resolving the conflict peacefully, getting them to admit they’re wrong about one thing and not the whole topic, or intentionally giving in because you care about them.
In the video above, philosopher Daniel H. Cohen suggests you stop looking at arguments as war. Nobody wins in a war, and what little changes are made are usually due to submission. Being right isn’t that important most of the time, and it’s usually just to feed our own egos.
Logically, arguments are very rarely black and white. If an argument gets too tense, diffuse it and you’ll both win in the long run. There are always alternate conclusions to consider. Remember the words of the great Sun Tzu: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”