How to Win an Argument

August 26, 2022

I don’t have to tell you this, but we live in a society that loves to argue. And regardless of what the world may tell us, that isn’t always a bad thing.

An argument, by definition, is simply a statement or set of statements that determine the value of something. It’s an exchange of clearly defined viewpoints in order to find the truth – which is usually determined by the combining of multiple viewpoints. 

So arguments in and of themselves are not all bad. The question is, how can you win an argument in order to persuade and influence people in a positive way?

Step 1: Empathize

Empathy is being humble enough to put yourself in the shoes of another person in order to see how they might see and feel how they might feel. This is what serving others is all about, and it’s the most effective way to navigate a conversation.

Research has shown that empathy, not facts, is what wins people’s hearts. When you appeal to what other people value, then they’re much more likely to be receptive and to be positively influenced.

So instead of going into an argument with the goal of making someone else see your point of view, go into it with the goal of seeing their point of view and helping them see how what you’re arguing for will help them get more of what they value.

Step 2 – Find their why

Once you’ve put yourself in their shoes and you see what they value, then you have to get to the heart of why they’re arguing.

Everyone has a reason for their views no matter how outlandish and asinine they may seem to us. You can figure out the “why” behind someone’s beliefs by simply asking questions like, “Why is that important?“ or, “What would happen if we did it another way?“ 

Asking questions around why someone believes something can sometimes lead them to answer that for themselves for the first time. And sometimes they realize their reason for arguing isn’t as strong as they thought it was.

Step 3 – Communicate your why

There was an interesting study conducted by Ellen Langer at Harvard university in the 1970s that found that when you ask people for something while giving them a reason for your request, they’re much more likely to help you out. 

In the experiment, individuals asked if they could cut in line at a copy machine, and they asked in two different ways. First, they simply asked if they could break in line without giving a reason. Then they asked the same thing but this time they said they wanted to break in line because they needed to make copies.

They found that by adding a simple “because“ statement to their request – which communicated why they wanted what they wanted – they saw an over 30% increase in compliance.

Human beings are naturally problem solvers. We want to help one another on a very instinctual level. Giving people the reason behind your argument, after understanding the reason for their argument, turns the conversation from a competitive discussion to a problem-solving session. When you can get people in the mindset of problem-solving with you, you’re much more likely to land in a better place.

Step 4 – Meet somewhere between

As you know, there are three sides to every story. There’s your side, there’s the other person’s side, then there’s the truth. 

Unfortunately, we’re almost never 100% right no matter how much we think we are. If we can acknowledge that going into an argument, we’ll reach a solution much faster. The truth is always somewhere between what you believe and what others believe, so why not prepare yourself to go there ahead of time?

Imagine how much better the world would be if compromise wasn’t a bad word. Imagine if compromise was the goal. And I don’t mean compromising on the non-negotiable things in life. There are absolutely some things that shouldn’t be negotiable. But for everything else, we need to be ready to meet people between what we believe and what they believe.

The phrase “meet in the middle“ is a bit misleading because it isn’t always the middle. Sometimes we go further and sometimes they go further. Sometimes it involves giving up almost all of our beliefs if what we believed was in ignorance.

That’s a picture of generosity – being willing to give our beliefs open handed and being willing to reach the solution that’s best for everyone, not just ourselves. That’s also a picture of grace – giving people the benefit of the doubt. And isn’t that what we all want? So why not offer it to other people?

It turns out, speaking the truth in love and offering people grace is actually the most effective way to win an argument. Most of the world doesn’t operate this way, but when you’re not just trying to “win” an argument, and instead you make helping the other person the aim of your argument, it turns out that all parties involved win in the end. And everyone’s better off for it. 

Posted by Mike P. Taylor

Mike P. Taylor is an author, speaker, and consultant who helps people understand God's goodness in a fresh way. He's the author of the book Grounded Faith for Practical People and he writes at mikeptaylor.com where he helps people rethink religion for a new generation. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife Sydney and their four kids.