8 Tips on How to Have an Argument

Arguing is not a skill I ever learned growing up. My dad was a pacifist, and even had he not been was so often out of town on business he wouldn’t have had time to teach me. In my current job I work with a man who has lived all his life dealing with conflict, and for the last ten years that’s often been with me. From him, I have learned the art of handling conflict. I think anyone can learn from this, but as an HSP, I have found these lessons particularly valuable.

1. Argue the issue, not the emotions behind it.

If you’re emotionally invested in an issue, it’s easy to let your emotions do the arguing. That only works if you’re rallying a group of people who already support your cause (a la Braveheart) but will never win an argument.

There was a study done in 2011 that showed that (long story made very short) men are turned off by women’s tears. In this context, the takeaway is that people can sense by non-verbal cues (some of them physiological, like tears) when you’re getting upset, and if you get upset, the other party wins more or less instantly. If they’re a seasoned arguer, they will sense the weakness, seize on your emotion, and work it – and if they’re really good at it, you’ll never know it’s happening – until they’ve confused or deviated you enough to win.

2. Know what your goals are, and never deviate from a path that gets you there unless in the course of reasoned discussion you see the need to change your goals.

Note the phrase reasoned discussion. Never let anyone yell you away from your goals. Yelling is the verbal equivalent of pushing: it doesn’t prove anything, it’s just an attempt to move someone off their position. So when someone yells, let them. As long as you’re not being physically struck (that’s a whole ‘nother animal, right there), let the yelling be noise (that’s all it is anyway) and when the noise pauses, say very quietly, “Stop that.”

2a: Never, ever match volume for volume. Stay quiet. Make the other person listen to you. “I am hear to discuss, not yell. When you’re calm, I’ll continue.”

If you do change your goals, be gracious enough to say, “Okay, you’ve convinced me,” and move on.

3. Refuse to be drawn out (see items 1 and 2.)

An argument is not unlike a game of King of the Mountain. Your opponent’s goal is to knock you off the peak. An experienced arguer, unable to bring you to your side with facts, will try to do this by appealing to your emotions.

They might attack you personally: it’s not about you, it’s about the issue!

They might try to confuse or derail the issue. Keep your eye on the goal (#2), and don’t be afraid to put the argument back on topic. “That’s a separate issue, we’ll deal with that later. The topic right now is…”

They might try to make you feel bad for opposing their viewpoint. Guilt is never a reason to back down, and you shouldn’t feel guilty in any case. It’s not about them (#1 and #2.)

4. Agree with the other person whenever possible.

This is my favorite of all these tips. If you’re in an argument with someone and agree with them, it really messes with their minds. Give you an example:

I was assistant director for a musical production at church. (I’ve quite a lot of technical direction experience, amateur and semi-pro, so I know my business.) At a key point in the show, the sound guy was to fade the music out on a six count. The musical director didn’t have any confidence in him, and so positioned herself next to his station so she could “direct” him (I was on his other side). When the moment came, he started the fade out: I watched him do it and it was right. The musical director, however, started waving her hand, hissing at him to “fade it! fade it!” This little distraction was enough, and he stopped, confused. Her lack of confidence broke that moment in the show, and I called her on it, privately, when the show was done for the night.

She ranted. She raved. She got loud. She took a private moment and made it very public. She told me how I’d ruined the show, ruined her night, ruined it for the kids, ruined everything.  None of which was true, of course.

I stood quiet, emotionless, implacable. Every time she said something I agreed with (“The kids have worked so hard!”, for example) I agreed with her, gently, quietly. Whenever she said something hyperbolic and emotional, I stayed silent. I gave her nothing to fight about. Nothing. She finally had to walk away because I wouldn’t give her what she wanted. After consulting with her husband and crying on his shoulder for a few minutes, she even came back and tried a second time. I agreed with her every point. I reiterated my position: “Joe knows what he’s doing, and needs to be left alone* to do it.”

* Note the passive voice. Not, “…you need to leave him alone…” but “he needs to be left alone.” Huge difference emotionally.

5. Pick your battles, and realize that the issue you started with might not be the issue you truly want.

Is it worth arguing? Is it really going to hurt anything to let the other person win a point? If the answer is no, it won’t hurt anything, let it go. If it moves the discussion forward, that’s a bonus.

5a. Now, for the advanced students: Could you, by allowing that point, gain something larger and more valuable? Many people are good arguers, but to be really great at it you have to think ahead.

6. Be willing to walk away.

Nothing ends an argument like there being only one person having it. “This is no longer a discussion. I’ll be back later.” You don’t have to apologize or even announce your intention if the situation is bad enough. The other person may try the dramatic TV line, “Don’t you walk away from me!!!” State your reason for walking away, your willingness to continue talking when the other person is calm and/or on topic, and keep walking. If the other party has some power over you (your boss, for instance) and you have to stay and take it, stay quiet, wait for a break in the noise, and state again your position. Also, reread #2.a, above.

7. Be willing to concede.

Surprising as this may be, you could be wrong. If you are, concede (I’m a married man, I know all about this part) and be gracious about it. None of this, “Okay okay, you know deep down I’m right and I’ll never let you forget this loss.” That sort of resentment has no place in a mature adult’s world.

However, once you concede, there’s no need for you to let the other person continue arguing. You’ve conceded: they should be willing to move to the next issue, or having no further issues that need arguing go on about the business of getting through the day.

8. Be willing to win.

This is a toughie for a lot of folks. Here’s the lesson in a nutshell: if the other person says, “Okay, you’re right,” you shut the hell up. Or you say, “Thank you, now on to issue #2…” or just “Thank you.”

Don’t continue to argue your point. Now you’re just being an asshole. They’ve conceded the point, move on. See #7.

Don’t co-concede. My wife does this sometimes: she’ll win, hands down no question, and as soon as I’ve conceded – before the words are even inches from my lips – she’ll say something to the effect of, “Of course, I could be wrong.” It’s that whole Protestant, puritan ethic that’s poisoned this country’s thinking since Plymouth Rock: I mustn’t be right.

Get used to the idea that it’s okay to be right from time to time. You’re not going to hell for being right.


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