Rewire Logo
A nonprofit journalism
website produced by:
Twin Cities PBS Logo

The Key to Winning an Argument Isn’t What You Think

by Gabe Zaldivar
February 18, 2019 | Living

At some point, you and your unstoppable force of an opinion will meet an immovable, argumentative antagonist.

If you are anything like the rest of the human race, you will dig in and embrace your opinions, demolishing your friend with quips as if they made up a battering ram ready to knock down their ill-informed wall.

We do it every Thanksgiving. We do it during the Super Bowl. We actually do it anytime we get the chance. Because while baseball is the nation’s pastime and football its heart, arguing will forever be everyone's favorite activity.

Unfortunately — and this may come as a blow to some of you — we are all pretty awful at arguing. But the key to debate may be getting over trying to win them so passionately.

Why we suck at arguing

Inevitably we’ll engage someone over the latest Trump tweet or thoughts on a Netflix series that we either loathed or loved.

Illustration of man and woman back-to-back. Winning an Argument pbs rewire
Don't let the thought of losing scare you into avoiding arguments all together.

Like the seasons in Southern California, our opinions, and theirs, will not change. You're a remarkable person or a complete liar if you say you’ve ever admitted to being wrong during a heated debate. And that’s because we have a rather tumultuous relationship with debate.

“I think it says something rather bad about us that we have such a hard time talking about arguments without lapsing into the language of winning and losing,” Colby College philosophy professor Daniel Cohen said.

When we get right down to it, we tend to think of arguments in a way that is completely counter to their main objective. Think of a debate as a way for two logical people to converse with one another and share ideas.

The problem is that we are, well, human. So, it becomes nearly impossible to exchange ideas without trying to win an imaginary battle.

Something that could be far more advantageous, as Cohen puts it, becomes self-involved and muddled by ego, “Arguments can be collaborative rather than combative.”

As we know, arguments can also turn ugly quickly.

"Sometimes people don’t understand what debate is; it’s the sort of thing that you learn on the street,” said Sam Nelson, director of forensics and a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s ILR School.

Our tactics tend to be a little Neolithic: “They think just raising your voice and yelling and screaming is the way to do it.”

We think of our next zinger instead of listening to our colleague, friend or family member. We lean on fallacies and dig in regardless of our hold on our argument’s truth. We do it all despite the fact that this greatly misses the point.

Losing to win

You want to win, but being obsessed with winning is a tremendous burden to growth. To have better arguments, give up trying to win. It’s that simple.

It sounds hokey, sure. But think about it for a moment. You actually gain far more if you allow yourself the possibility of losing an argument.

What does winning get you? You only really gain a feeling that will dissolve the very second you encounter another walking debate machine.

Imagine doing something that would actually arm yourself for the next argument. Something that would make you bigger, better, stronger when it comes to conversations.

It’s called listening, and it will get you everywhere.

“A big part of debate, and people don’t seem to understand this, isn’t the talking part, it’s the listening part,” Nelson said.

“If we are going to be connoisseurs of better argument, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard as well. And that includes (that) we have to be willing to change our mind.”

The exchange of ideas is a perilous exercise.

“Debate is risky," Nelson said. "You go in; you think you know where you stand in the universe. You think you understand right vs. wrong; your ego is kind of tied up in your opinions, and often times people think their opinions are the same as their self-worth.”

We need to separate ourselves from our opinions in order to have more productive conversations.

"We identify with our beliefs and our choices so that any critique of our positions is taken as a personal attack on us," Cohen said. "And I think this is especially true in political and religious contexts.”

The elements of an effective argument

So, what makes a good argument? It helps to break things down to their essentials. Nelson offered three components, the first being that “all good arguments have a point.”

From there: “The best arguments are the ones where there are justifications behind the points, behind the claim someone’s making. There’s some reasoning.

"And the third most important part of a good structured argument is it needs some evidence or some proof.”

Shifting your mindset

Fine, let’s say you buy into this radical new idea of losing an argument to win one. How do you go about employing it without walking the street shamed?

"I find it much easier to say, ‘Well, I’ll have to think about it’ or ‘That’s interesting, let me think about it some more’ rather than, ‘OK, you win,’" Cohen said. "I try to offer that as a face-saving out: ‘How about we think about this some more and continue later?’”

And don't let the thought of losing scare you into avoiding arguments all together.

“I think in our daily lives we have to seek out people we like to argue with and have a nice healthy argument with them," Nelson said. "And we need to on our own behalf we need to be able to risk being wrong.”

If you don't let your ego get in the way, you can always learn something from a debate.

“This is one of the big values of argument is that when you enter an argument you can actually leave the argument stronger than when you went in, having more knowledge, having a stronger opinion,” he said.

Consider entering into your next debate with with this mentality: You very well may be right. But you could also be very wrong. Coming away from the exchange better than your opponent is being able to embrace both possibilities.

Gabe Zaldivar
Gabe Zaldivar is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered all manner of sports for Bleacher Report and, as well as all manner of travel interests for
Are you here? So are we!
Rewire LogoFor a better life and a brighter future
A nonprofit journalism website produced byTPT Logo
©2021 Twin Cities Public Television.Privacy PolicyTerms of Use