How to win difficult arguments
Mark Twain told us to never argue with “stupid” people. But sometimes, you just can’t help it.
Earlier this year, I found myself at a small gathering. In between the ‘hellos’ and ‘what’s new with you’s’ we got on the topic of systemic racism of the police in the U.S. (disclosure: everyone was white). One of the less-than-progressive thinkers decided to share their offensive and completely off-base opinion on the matter. While I stared open mouthed at such a display of ignorance, other people chipped in and the conversation escalated.
Normally, something like this would have set me off on a tirade. Instead, I sat silent; I was afraid of getting into it in public and the words caught me so off guard, I didn’t even know where to start. Now, that moment haunts me; I think about it all the time. Things I could have said. Should have said. I feel that I have a responsibility to confront racism when I see it. I know I should have, but I kept silent. I think I did more harm than good that day, which is why I started researching for this story.
What could I have done differently? How could I have talked to this person without irreparably damaging our relationship or intensifying their viewpoints? And so I created this list of five tips for winning difficult arguments; winning, in this case, meaning both parties walking away with more knowledge than they came in with, and hopefully with a more progressive attitude.
1. Pick your battles. There are some people whose minds you are never going to change. According to Stephan Lewandowsky, the chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol in the U.K., and an expert on why people reject science when embracing an ideology, people tend to cling to their beliefs even when presented with challenges to their way of thinking, especially when it affects them personally or is part of their overall worldview.
Often, when you argue with someone, the person will counter argue – “even if they don’t do it out loud, they will think to themselves ‘this can’t be right’ and then they will generate reasons why it is wrong,” says Lewandowsky. This is referred to as the worldview backfire effect – when you challenge someone’s very sense of cultural identity, and they simply reject your argument without even listening because it offends who they are. Some nuts are just too tough to crack, and you can almost guarantee you will not accomplish anything besides intensifying their beliefs.
Daniel Cohen, philosophy professor at Colby College in Maine, and speaker at a recent TED Talk called For Argument’s Sake, puts it perfectly. “I really dislike arguing with dogmatic people of any stripe, whether it’s conspiracy theorists on the lunatic fringe, political zealots with unshakeable agendas, or religious fanatics who might even count as part of the ‘mainstream.’ Those arguments are hardly ever productive and almost never enjoyable.”
Here are some things to look for when deciding to engage someone in an argument: are they open to other angles (you can usually tell this by the language they use. Instead of just rattling off facts, they will frame their viewpoint as a personal opinion and won’t use absolutes when presenting it)? Are their motives pure (do they have something to gain by holding their viewpoint, i.e. someone who works at a tobacco company may be biased when arguing about the effects of second-hand smoke)? Is this someone you respect? If you respect their intelligence, you may feel they are worth the effort of a debate.
And most importantly, what’s at stake? Are you doing more damage than good by letting it go? If you feel that you need to say something, for whatever reason, because staying silent would be worse, then move on to tip 2.
2. Congratulations, you’ve decided to pursue an argument. Now let’s talk about ways you can actually change someone’s mind. One method that works for Lewandowsky is to ask questions. Specifically, ask “Why are you so sure of that?” and “Why do you think most people have a different opinion?” Their answers to these two questions will often reveal their true colours. Remember, if this is something deeply entrenched – like a conspiracy theory, or a worldview – it’s very unlikely you will change their mind. Keep asking detailed questions about their viewpoints, and you may end up showing the person the flaw in their reasoning organically. Socrates was a smart dude.
3. Instead of mentioning the ignorant belief over and over, repeat your counter statement so the person will focus more on that. For example, instead of saying “in the cases we’re talking about, African Americans are often not at fault for the aggressive police tactics used,” say “in the cases we’re talking about, African Americans were innocent and did not deserve such brutality.” By avoiding the initial ignorant statement (that African Americans are at fault), you decrease the impact of the familiarity backfire effect – people are more likely to remember a statement the more times they hear it, even if they hear contrary evidence. It’s a small verbal tactic that works well in debates.
4. Tell a story. This is especially useful with people who may not be interested in facts or logic, who simply feel a certain way and want to share their opinion. “We love stories,” says Lewandowsky, “Personal experience is more powerful than data.” Instead of sharing statistics about the percentage of black people who get carded, consider sharing a personal experience where you or a friend were undeservedly stopped by the police and how that made you feel. If you can get the person to see how this affected you personally, they may be able to empathize with you, and it could help change their viewpoint.
5. Pick the right place and the right time. It’s important that you are in a space where you both feel comfortable sharing ideas, and where neither of you feel defensive. For example, calling someone out publicly on Facebook in front of their peers may only result in putting the person on edge. It might be better to private message them, or to talk to them in person if possible. If you are surrounded by people who lean completely one way or the other (in favour or against your argument), let’s say at a gathering, this might not be the best scenario either. You want to be in a place that’s quiet and conducive to conversation (i.e. not a loud party), where there may be other people around who can chip in to the debate constructively. Group discussions where there are people of all different backgrounds and viewpoints can make it seem safe for a discussion. And hey, you might just learn something too.
To argue or not to argue?
Here are three examples of scenarios where arguing may not be the most productive solution:
“When there is nothing to gain – including the joy of arguing – then the default should be: don’t argue. Not every difference of opinion needs to be elevated into a dispute. For the most part, trying to make others believe something they don’t want to believe just isn’t a very nice thing to do unless their beliefs affect you,” says Cohen.
Publicly online. Almost never a good idea. At the very least, you are likely to be misunderstood or will come off as confrontational, and at most you will invite trolls into the mix. “[Online], people sit in their own little ecochambers and have no reason to expose themselves to other views and this reinforces their ideas,” explains Lewandowsky, “Each one of us lives in our own little bubble of preferences.” So you swooping in and dropping knowledge probably won’t be well received.
When you suspect someone is acting in bad faith. Don’t feed the trolls. If you feel that someone may be posting something or saying something just for shock value, for attention or to stir up controversy, abort. Trolls, or people who intentionally say inflammatory things to gauge someone’s reaction, often possess one or more of the following personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. They are probably not the person you want to engage with or invite into an earnest debate.
So next time you are in that awkward spot – do I say something, or do I stay silent? – keep these tips in mind. “There are few better ways to expand your intellectual horizons than to engage with someone who has a different take on things, and is both good at giving reasons and genuinely reasons-responsive, especially if she is well-informed and has something to say. Good arguers with wild ideas are the best!” says Cohen. “Arguing is the bread and butter of our intellectual lives, so differences of opinion can matter in many ways – intellectually, emotionally, politically, and more.” Don’t be afraid, go forth and argue!
(But, just in case) How to respectfully disengage while still registering your objection
When you find yourself in one of the scenarios listed above, or maybe you engaged in an argument, but learned quickly that it was not the right time, place, topic or person, you may just want to walk away. You win some and you lose some. So how do you escape the conversation with your pride still intact, and without reinforcing the other person’s views?
Try to agree with the person as much as you can with small hedges like “Well, there might be something to that” or “I suppose that could be possible”; avoid definite commitment either way, e.g., “I’ll need to think about that” or “Let me get back to you”. Do not let yourself be baited or drawn back in by inflammatory comments. “The less said the better,” says Cohen.
However, if it’s a personal issue and you feel you need to address it, you have a few options wonderfully outlined by Francesca Ramsey in this segment for MTVNews. You can simply say something like, “I don’t want to have this conversation because I don’t think you are open to my viewpoint. But you should know that others around you did find your words hurtful, and I hope you can be more conscious of that in the future.” This makes it clear that you are not interested in further debate, while still registering your disapproval of what they said.