Virtually every day of your life, you’re going to be engaged in an argument with someone. Note: I’m not talking about arguments in the sense of being angry and yelling at someone. I’m talking about arguments in the classic sense where you’re trying to influence someone to agree with you and you’re doing that by presenting a series of reasons (known as arguments).
- You think you should be given some additional privileges and your parents don’t
- Your friends want to go over to Sally’s house and do X, you think that’s unwise
- You and your co-workers are going out for lunch, several want to go for Sushi, you prefer Italian
- Your boss wants you to handle a project a certain way, you think there’s a better way
- You’re on a sports team, there are 30 seconds left in the game. You’re in a huddle and you have one shot to convince your teammates why your strategy is the right strategy to win the game.
- Your spouse and you are at odds over which house to buy or where to live or where to spend this Christmas, etc.
- You’re at a town hall meeting and you need to present your case for why the town council needs to make a policy change
Literally everyday of your life, you’re going to be at odds (not necessarily in a combative way) with someone (or a group of someones) and if you want to win more of those discussions, then you’re going to have to learn how to logically (and that’s an important word) construct and defend your argument.
I. Why Most People Fail At Arguing
Whenever you’re trying to learn how to get better at something, one of the key tactics you should add to your learning arsenal is to figure out why others fail at doing that thing and then avoid doing those things. By simply avoiding doing those activities that don’t produce the kinds of results you’re after, you will, by definition, immediately become better at whatever you’re attempting to get better at. And this is absolutely true in the case of learning how to be a better arguer (meaning someone who can regularly gain agreement from others by presenting a series of compelling reasons why they should agree with your position).
In light of that, here are a few reasons why most people don’t regularly win their arguments.
1. They Make It Personal
Whenever you allow an argument to get personal, chances are high that your reasoning skills will decrease. When you make it personal, the argument is no longer about that thing alone, it’s about you and that thing. For example, using the privilege discussion mentioned above, if you turn the discussion about your privileges into a conversation about you and your worth as a person it will be very difficult for you to be objective because you’ve made it personal.
2. They Get Too Emotionally Involved
When you allow your emotions to get too engaged, chances are high that you won’t be very objective and your argument won’t be very logical, it’ll just be emotional. You can hear this all the time when someone says, “Well, I just feel …” or “Well, I just think …” (which, by the way, usually isn’t a thought statement, it’s an emotional/feeling statement wrapped in a thought process word). Emotions are usually detrimental to you being able to construct a cogent (meaning, well-reasoned) argument.
When Chelsea and Brooke were little, one of my rules was, “The moment you whine, you’ve lost the argument.” I did that for two reasons. One, if I gave in to whining once, they would keep doing it (and I hate whining). And two, I wanted to train them how to construct an argument. I was always open (and still am) to anyone suggesting an alternative to what I believe is the right thing to do or believe or feel—they just need to construct a valid argument for why they think my option isn’t the best option and why theirs is better. Emotion won’t do that.
3. They Don’t Construct a Logical Argument
Logic is a lost art but logic is how you convince others to agree with you. When you don’t construct an argument logically, people can’t follow or agree with you because your “argument” doesn’t make sense. If your argument is based on feelings statements, “Well, I feel …” you’ll rarely win because other people feel differently (i.e. you say, “I feel I should be able to stay out past 11:00 p.m.” your parents say, “Well, we feel you shouldn’t.”). There’s nothing logical or compelling about feeling statements in that context.
Likewise, when you’re constructing an argument, you’re putting together a series of reasons. In order to be compelling each of the reasons itself has to be logical and fit with the other reasons. So, for example, lets say you’re offering your parents three reasons why you should be able to stay our later and one and three make sense but two is from outer space (“I should be allowed to stay out past 11:00 p.m. because I read a report that 92% of teens in Sweden don’t have a curfew imposed on them by their parents”), you won’t win.
So, without going through a long list of reasons why most people don’t win more arguments, let’s jump into how you can better prepare yourself to be better at influencing more people to agree with your positions.
II. How to Construct a More Compelling Argument
To construct a more logical and persuasive argument, you’ll want to follow the following guidelines
1. Make Sure You’re Emotionally Objective
This is just a quick reminder from above. If you want to construct a more compelling and logical argument, you have to make sure you’re not too emotionally engaged or that you’ve made the issue at hand too personal. Either one of those issues will significantly hinder your ability to think clearly. In other words, the more objective and detached you are from the issue, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to construct a more persuasive argument.
2. Find Enough Facts To Support Your Point of View
If the conversation you’re engaged in is spontaneous, it’s hard to do a lot of research in the heat of the moment. However, this is one of the reasons why it’s so important for you to be a voracious learner and student of life. The more you know, the deeper the well is that you have to draw from.
For example, if you’re frequently reading books or magazine articles or blog posts in your area of expertise and your boss and you are having a difficult conversation about a marketing strategy and you’re able to say something like, “I appreciate where you’re coming from, and in the past that strategy has worked, but I was just reading a report by XYZ company last week that suggests that 82% of resellers now prefer _______,” that will go a long way toward gaining agreement with your point of view.
On the other hand, if it’s an issue that you know ahead of time, do as much research as is necessary to find some facts/data that will support what you’re trying to convince them of. Why? Because it’s harder to argue against someone who has real data. If one person says, “Well, I think we should do X because I think it’s the right thing to do,” and the other person says, “Well, I’ve surveyed our target market on this issue and 78% are in agreement with the change, 18% are neutral and only 4% are against the change,” who do you think is going to win the argument? Exactly, the second person.
3. Construct Your Case Like a Lawyer
When you’re creating your argument, you have to create a framework which leads the other person (or group of people) from point A to point B. Point A is where they’re starting and Point B is where you want them to go. Your argument is the series of reasons you’re using to logically lead them to conclude that your position or point of view is correct.
The way you do that is by organizing your ideas as if you were a lawyer presenting a case before a jury. You logically arrange your ideas as a series of reasons (propositions) that lead the jury to agree with you. Reason #1 leads to Reason #2, which leads to Reason #3. Since 1, 2, and 3 are true and you agree that they’re true, then you have to conclude that my argument is correct and you must decide in my favor.
For example, when I wanted to get Jacquie to agree with me that we should move from Germantown, MD (where we had lived for 23 years) to Charleston, SC, the basic argument went like this.
1. Once Brooke leaves for her senior year of college, she won’t return home. The probability of our two kids living in the DC metro area is very small. (True)
2. While we like DC, we don’t love it. For example, we hate the traffic. (True)
3. You know I hate winter, snow and ice. Growing up shoveling snow in Brockport, NY, I acquired a strong distaste for snow. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in the south and not have to deal with snow and ice anymore? (True)
4. At some point, we’re going to leave DC. We can either wait until we retire and move someplace where we don’t know anyone or we can move now and begin to build relationships over the next 15-20 years so that when we retire, we’ll be surrounded by friends. (True)
5. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in paradise 52 weeks per year instead of just visiting there on vacation two weeks per year? (True)
6. Germantown, MD is nice but it’s not a grandkid magnet. Wouldn’t it be nice to move someplace where our kids and their future spouses and kids would want to come and visit? Even better, to live someplace where our grandkids would want to come stay with us for several weeks each summer? (True)
You get the idea. Each idea builds on those that went before it. And did it work? Absolutely! We love living in Charleston, SC. Note: to simplify the argument, I didn’t mention all the data I used in our conversations but trust me, there was a lot of data involved from home values and commute times to average temperatures and snow and ice accumulations, etc. However, rather than bog you down in data, I chose to simplify the argument so you could see how the argument was constructed in a logical flow with each point building on the other. Hopefully, you can see that.
4. Use Logic As Your Competitive Advantage
As I mentioned above, logic is a lost art these days. However, logic is critical both to creating a compelling argument, as well as seeing the mistakes in other people’s arguments. For example, going back to the privileges conversation, if you say, “Well, all of my friends’ parents let them stay out past 11:00 p.m.” that’s not a strong logical statement. Why? Because just because a lot of people do something doesn’t mean that what they do or what they believe is correct. If King Ferdinand had said to Christopher Columbus, “But 99.99% of people believe the world is flat,” would that have made the world flat?
Logically, just because a lot of people believe something or do something doesn’t make it right. That’s a logical fallacy. If you know that, you can avoid doing that in your arguments and you can spot it quickly in others (and call them on it). Another logical fallacy is just because a famous person said or did something doesn’t make it right. Another fallacy is arguing from personal experience (“Well, my experience is …”). Another logically fallacy is confirmation bias (only using evidence that confirms your belief and avoiding anything that doesn’t).
Note: You don’t need to study logic if you’re not interested in it (though I think you’d benefit from it). However, I would at least encourage you to learn to cultivate the ability to think logically and ask if reason #1 (or #2 or #3, etc.) is valid support for the position either you or the person you’re having the conversation with has. Logic matters
So, if you want to win more arguments in order that you can more positively influence more people to make better choices, make sure you avoid the three mistakes I listed above and them utilize the four strategies for constructing a more logical argument.
1. Make sure you’re emotionally objective
2. Find enough facts to support your point of view
3. Construct your case like a lawyer
4. Make logic your competitive advantage
If you do these four things on a consistent basis, I’m confident you’ll have a much better batting average when it comes to winning your arguments—and you’ll have a much greater level of influence as a leader.
To your accelerated success!