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6 Elements to Consider if You Want to Win an Argument

What goes into a winning argument?

Key points

  • We live in a world in which winning and losing have become all-important. But winning isn’t always what it seems–or as simple as it seems.
  • Arguments that become power struggles can often only be won through power.
  • Elements that may help you feel satisfied with an argument's conclusion include defining your goals, using tact, and fine-tuning empathy skills.

Eleanor* and Beatrice* had been together for six years when they came for marital counseling. “We seem to argue about everything,” Eleanor said. “We used to agree about everything. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Angelina* has two grown children. Her daughter doesn’t speak to her and won’t let her see her grandchildren. “She says I’m always arguing, always criticizing her.”

Art* is having difficulties at work. He has been criticized for arguing, disrupting the team, and disrespecting his supervisor. “I’m not arguing,” Art said. “I’m just pointing out ways that we could do things better.”

Edward* and his brother stopped talking because of political differences. “I can’t talk to someone who’s so bull-headed about something so wrong,” he said. Although he said it didn’t bother him, he also acknowledged that he missed his brother and that he had felt down and a little lost since the argument.

We live in a world in which winning and losing have become all-important. But winning isn’t always what it seems–or as simple as it seems.

These six elements won’t necessarily help you “win” an argument, but they’ll help you be more satisfied with the conclusion.

1. Define your terms: Differences of opinion are not the same as arguments. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a disagreement is a difference of opinion. Disagreements can be discussed, and opinions can change over time. Such changes usually require ongoing interactions, faith in one another’s good intentions, and a wish to understand one another’s positions and beliefs. An argument is “an angry disagreement” or “a quarrel.” Arguments can, if not moderated, lead to fights.

2. Define your goals: Do you want to make a point? Or to prove that you are right and someone else is wrong? Do you need someone else to agree wholeheartedly with your position? Or do you want to engage in genuine sharing of ideas, a give and take, to find a solution that works for you and the other person (or people)? Edward and his brother were not interested in sharing ideas and understanding one another’s points of view. Highly competitive with one another, they each demanded that the other agree with them. There was no way for either of them to win this argument.

3. Fights are generally won only by power: A heated argument can seldom be won by either party and therefore often becomes nothing more than a power struggle. Physical aggression or verbal aggression are the most obvious types of power plays. Still, withholding love, money, affection, time, attention, sex, or contact with loved ones can all be attempts to gain the upper hand. Angelina’s daughter was winning their fight by withholding contact between Angelina and her grandchildren. Angelina’s task was to find a way to de-escalate the fight.

4. Keep a disagreement from becoming an argument: When a disagreement becomes heated, it is much harder to win. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman tells us that when a disagreement becomes a heated argument, both sides become more entrenched in their position. At that point, taking a break from the discussion is best. When I work with couples, I often spend a great deal of time helping them find healthy, non-threatening ways to take breaks from difficult discussions.

Based on Goleman’s findings, I suggest that after 20 minutes of any disagreement, they mutually agree to step back, go into separate rooms, and spend a little time doing something soothing–read a book, listen to a podcast or music, take a long shower. In some cases, doing something together that has nothing to do with the conflict can also be helpful–going for a walk or watching a show, for instance–but the agreement must be that there is no discussion of the conflictual material for at least the next hour (it can also be the next day).

After both people have had time to calm down, they can revisit the topic, but again, only for 20 minutes at a time. Because Angelina and her daughter had gone past the 20-minute mark many times without resolving their difficulties, it was hard for them to find a way back to a more mutually acceptable discussion. Finding their way back involved using the next two techniques: tact and empathy.

5. Consider the use of tact: Art is one of many clients I have worked with who felt that the only way to be true to himself was to say what he thought, whether or not other people liked to hear it. An argument, in his opinion, was simply an expression of his belief. As we began to explore some of his goals at work, he realized that by expressing himself without considering the feelings of others, he was acting on contradictory goals.

He did not care about being liked, but he did want to be successful at his job. And he began to see that he would have greater success in his work if he were more tactful about expressing his points, many of which were important and useful. In fact, as he became more aware of the feelings of his co-workers and supervisors, he found that more and more of his suggestions were accepted.

When Angelina finally realized that she could and should be more tactful with her daughter, the conversations became somewhat more manageable. “I think of her as part of me,” Angelina said. “But I have to accept that she’s not. She’s a grown woman with needs and feelings of her own.”

6. Fine tune your empathy skills: Everyone, even your worst enemies, believes they have good reasons for their opinions. Empathy means trying to understand another person’s feelings and perspective even if you don't agree with them. Understanding why they think as they do can make it easier to manage differences of opinion.

Although he disagreed with his brother's reasoning, Edward said, “I love him. He’s not an evil person. We’ve decided to try to keep talking about our differences, explaining our reasoning to each other when we can. We're limiting our discussions to 20 minutes a visit. And then we watch a sports match and don’t allow ourselves to talk more about the conflict. It seems to be working. And the funny thing is, we both seem to be shifting a tiny bit in our thinking. How did that happen?”

Angelina and her daughter also began to progress when they tried to understand each other’s feelings more. “It was kind of amazing,” Angelina said. “As soon as I started trying to understand her feelings, she started doing it back to me. And the whole tone of our conversations changed.”

Arguments are difficult, if not impossible, to win. But differences of opinion are part of any relationship between two people who care about but are not clones of one another. See what happens if you stop trying to win and start discussing and accepting differences.

*Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy


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