How to win an argument every time (according to science)

Ever feel you’re fighting a losing battle at work?

Compromise and empathy are valuable assets, but sometimes you need to outright get your point across if progress is to be made. Laboring on under a false understanding can just create more trouble down the line – and nobody learns anything if their misconceptions are never challenged.

Sometimes, however, even if you do make a stand for the truth – be it a better technique, a business insight, or an interpersonal issue – you can walk away from the encounter feeling crushed and defeated. Losing an argument when you know that you’re right feels even worse than not speaking up at all.

So how can you make sure that your voice is heard, your points are understood, and your case is won? Well, like so many aspects of workplace life, you can go by instinct – or you can learn some proven techniques.

There are three stages to winning an argument the smart way:

  1. engagement,
  2. expression, and
  3. agreement.

You need to engage your opponent, because coming at them in an all-out attack will just raise their defenses before you’ve even made your point. Don’t frame the argument as an conflict, but rather a discussion. Quite aside from the fact that you might actually be wrong and/or learn something from listening, asking your opponent to explain their side first can foster a rapport, so they are more likely to trust you when it’s time to make your own points. Instead of countering their arguments, begin by asking open questions – especially if you spot a loose thread in their logic. Often their argument will fall apart in their own hands.

Back up this period of listening by repeating back what you’ve understood. This proves you weren’t just pretending to listen – and can also help loosen those threads a little further. And maintain friendly eye contact, but don’t force a smile. False smiles betray themselves, jeopardizing the trust you’ve built.

So now you’re leading the discussion on your terms, it’s time to express your side of things. But first, let’s skip back in time for a moment: you need to make sure you’ve researched your argument! Just as you can easily expose the flaws in your opponent’s poorly-thought-out logic, it is likely that you think you know your own logic better than you do (this is known as ‘illusion of explanatory depth’). Everybody is right until they are proved wrong.

Illustrate your points with visuals and back them up with evidence and supporting arguments from other people – particularly those who are noted in the relevant field. Unless your opponent is a troll or a contrarian, this will strengthen your argument by demonstrating that your mutual peers agree with you. Speak quietly, and soften potential aggression by using ‘could it be’ and ‘might we say’-type phrases, and little cues for agreement such as ‘isn’t it?’ and ‘wouldn’t you say…’. This reduces the impression that you are an opponent to be defeated, and instead promotes an atmosphere of doubt, discussion, and rational progress.

Just as you flattered your opponent into engaging with you, you can finish them off – er, secure their agreement, that is – by working with their point of view rather than getting hung up on your own case. One way to do this is to find a particularly silly area of their logic and to develop it to an absurd extreme. This is a great strategy when your opponent is clearly trapped in their own logic, and hasn’t considered the real world implications of their claims. You probably already know this technique: when your kindergarten teacher asked you, ‘if Billy told you to jump off a cliff, would you do that, too?’, your ‘Billy told me to snap the pencil’ argument dissolved in an instant.

And if total destruction of your opponent is not your over-arching intention, you can swing them over to your way of thinking by entertaining the common ground between your arguments. In a business scenario, chances are you want the same results – but are divided over the best way of getting there. Highlighting the elements that you are agreed upon can help pave the way from their high castle to yours.

Indisputable victory in an argument is not always the healthiest way forward, but if you want to sway things in your favor or to correct dangerous misconceptions, it can help to have a few debating tools on hand to do so. Check out this infographic for some additional tips – and don’t be afraid to be wrong, because it’s only by acknowledging our flaws that we can move past them.

G. John Cole is a digital nomad and freelance writer. Specialising in leadership, digital media and personal growth, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in Norway, the UK and the Balkans. 

Image: Pexels

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