A full solution from the best debaters in the world.
Winston Churchill was arguing with a woman at a dinner party.
Churchill was a difficult man, with a strong personality and a willingness to stand behind his point.
The two went back and forth until she finally said, “If I were your wife, I’d poison your coffee.”
Churchill retorted, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
I never think of those comebacks in the heat of the moment. It’s always during my drive home that I realize I could have totally owned this other person. The French have a saying for this, “_L’espirit D’escalier_” — or stairway wit.
The truth is — I hate arguing. I don’t like conflict. But I’ve studied the hell out of argumentation because it’s so important.
Making a good, strong argument is necessary for securing a raise, deescalating a conflict, suffering fools, protecting friendships, and much more.
Snipe an argument like a champ
Rule 1: Don’t come in too hot — and that doesn’t just refer to emotions.
For example, in courtrooms, it’s proven that witnesses are more credible to juries when they express moderate, rather than low or high confidence. It has a direct impact on verdict outcomes and sentencing.
When you have low confidence, you seem unsure of yourself and what you’re saying.
When you have high confidence, you seem overbearing, insecure, or driven by ego (“I have to win!”).
As fun and memorable as Churchill’s example was, it wasn’t the most efficient way to win someone over.
Scientist, Paul Graham, created a hierarchy of disagreement, ranking the best and worst strategies for debate. The lowest are personal attacks and name-calling.
The #1 way to argue is to stick with a strong central point. Don’t repeat it over and over. Just build everything around it.
Staying focused is extremely important during relationship fights. One of the most common advice from marriage counselors is, “Always stick to the thing you’re arguing about.”
No pulling other skeletons and resentments out of the closet.
“You want to talk about sharing chores but you can’t even pay your own bills.”
“And you wonder why I hate your fatass family.”
You would be shocked by how many nice, polite people grow devil horns when fighting with their spouses.
They turn a simple disagreement into a nuclear holocaust.
By the end of the argument, your head is spinning and on fire. You can’t even remember what the original argument was about.
Arguing when you are certain you are correct
There’s nothing better than knowing you can dunk on someone.
You know you have the science. You have the logic. You have the standards for human decency.
When you come in guns blazing with all of your clear evidence, the other person will lock up. They’ll feel bullied and incapable of hearing you out.
The best arguers are proven to use a small number of key points. They don’t rapid-fire or clap in the person’s face while they talk.
They ask questions. They know changing someone’s mind is damn-near impossible. By asking questions, that person will change their own mind.
Great arguers stay calm, kind, and empathetic — no matter how ignorant or stupid their target is.
They often open by acknowledging the things they agree on. Quite often, they compliment their opponent in the first minute.
Opening soft is disarming. It’s unexpected. It highlights a desire for consensus rather than war and condescension.
I’ve spent the past five years writing on the internet — on platforms where anyone can comment.
It’s the worst. I have a courtside seat at every game of the Golden State Keyboard Warriors.
In all of that name-calling and horrible language and aggression, I’ve never seen a single person stop and say, “You know what, you are right. I’m wrong. We’ve all learned a lot today.”
Persuasion starts with kindness, not fire. It’s as HG Wells wrote, “The first man to raise a fist is the man who’s run out of ideas.”
Dealing with real-life yelling and toxicity
I’d been dating a woman for a few months. We had an otherwise good and healthy relationship that was loving and sweet.
There’d been a disagreement we were discussing and — suddenly — she blew up and started screaming. She shouted at the top of her lungs for six or seven sentences in a row.
Prior to this, she’d never raised her voice in the slightest. I was completely caught off guard and stunned.
I didn’t say anything.
There are only two healthy ways of handling this situation. One — you end the discussion. Therapists frequently say that even responding validates that person’s verbal abuse (yes, shouting is considered verbal abuse — full stop).
Two, you sidestep.
Forget the actual discussion. Have a discussion about the discussion.
When someone is upset suddenly, express calm curiosity at their emotions and why they are upset.
Staying calm conveys your own strength while also validating that you care about their emotions.
The worst possible thing you can do is shout back.
The takeaway to being a great arguer
- Stay calm and confident but don’t stray into the land of overconfidence.
- Show empathy and a goal of progress.
- Keep the argument focused in one lane. Don’t let it spiral out into six different arguments.
- Start by acknowledging things you agree on.
- Stick to a few strong points. Don’t overpower them and feel the need to dominate if you have the advantage.
The idea is for both of you to walk away feeling you’ve evolved from the discussion.
It’s difficult to stay kind and understanding in the face of idiocy and aggression.
But if you do it — you’ll be the real champion. You’ll walk away proud of your actions rather than regretting them.