Remember the last argument you had? Perhaps words were exchanged, fists were clenched, and things got heated. Kinda like this…
But arguing productively isn’t about becoming Hades; it’s about staying calm like a Jedi.
In this article, I will go over the basic elements of a productive disagreement, along with tips on how to argue, convey your message, and win in your unique way.
I asked Buster Benson, the author of Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement, to help me understand the psychology of arguing (and how to do it better). Check out our interview below!
Let’s dive in!
What is an Argument? (Definition)
An argument is when two or more people with different views of the world clash in an unacceptable way. Arguments are typically heated and can involve yelling and negative emotions, such as anger or nervousness.
Before an argument happens, you might notice a shift from conversation to disagreement.
The shift can happen in 2 different ways:
- When you feel nervousness, anger, or dread in anticipation of an argument. This might happen if you’re used to arguing with a toxic friend, for example.
- When you go from having a conversation to representing a point of view. In other words, you’re no longer speaking for yourself but for a value or a larger cause. You start representing a group, an ideology, or a movement that is bigger than you.
3 Common Misconceptions About Arguing
Argument Misconception #1: All Arguments Are Bad
Arguments may feel uncomfortable, and we often think discomfort is bad!
But that’s not true.
Arguments are where learning, collaboration, and growth happen.
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine if you avoided ALL arguments that ever came your way.
Nobody would argue with you, and you’d assume everything you say or even imagine is 100% true. This would be disastrous:
- You wouldn’t grow.
- You wouldn’t learn anything different.
- Your worldview would be distorted.
Not to mention you’d be as interesting as a plain loaf of bread.
Argument Misconception #2: Avoiding = Maturity
As I got older, I started thinking that the “mature” thing to do was to completely avoid arguments.
But the more I avoided them, the deeper I crawled into a dark echo chamber.
By avoiding arguments, I:
- walked on eggshells with friends and family
- unfollowed people I didn’t agree with
- spent less time with people who had different opinions
All of which led to a much smaller worldview!
Now that I’ve “escaped” from my echo chamber, I realize…
Embracing arguments and learning from them is the real test of maturity.
Argument Misconception #3: Arguments Change Minds
When we argue, we likely want to CONVINCE and PERSUADE.
But in reality, our arguments often ATTACK and BELITTLE.
Why? Because core beliefs often take a long time to change—much more time than you have in a single argument session.
This results in a lot of resentment when we can’t change our opponents’ minds (even though in reality, arguments are doomed to fail anyway).
Instead of trying to change minds, we should focus on conflict resolution.
What Is Conflict Resolution? (Definition)
Conflict resolution involves practices that help de-escalate a situation and facilitate peace. The goal is to calm things down, even if the argument continues. When all parties involved are calm, the argument may continue peacefully, which further opens their minds and facilitates a mutually agreeable outcome.
A common mistake people make when it comes to conflict resolution is not understanding what it means. In many instances, people believe that it means going through with the argument persuasively to emerge the victor quicker.
Yes, the quicker an argument ends, the better.
Still, you shouldn’t try to end arguments forcibly!
When we’re angry, our decisions are influenced heavily by emotions, which ends up being the bane of a productive disagreement.
There are 5 methods of conflict resolution:
- Withdrawing from the conflict. This method should be chosen when the harm of the confrontation will be greater than the potential reward from resolving the conflict.
- Competing against each other, no matter the outcome. Deciding to resolve a conflict this way means that the people involved might be assertive but not cooperative. This conflict resolution method might not be the best for productive agreement.
- Accommodating the other party. When opting for this method, you decide to give in to the other person’s wishes or demands and be cooperative, not assertive. This is a graceful way of ending the argument if you realize that you were wrong or you don’t want to escalate. However, it CAN lead to unresolved issues.
- Collaborating. This method involves both sides practicing assertiveness and cooperation, learning from each other, and coming to an agreement. However, it’s not easy to collaborate—both parties need an open mind and a willingness to resolve the argument. They should not look for ways to WIN but for ways to work together.
- Compromising your position. This conflict resolution method involves both parties being partially assertive and cooperative while negotiating a settlement. Both step away from the higher ground and try to find the middle ground, such as in any negotiation in the popular TV show Shark Tank.
Which of the above stances do you find yourself taking on most occasions? Do you adopt a different approach each time or have a specific way of dealing with arguments?
The way you handle an argument now will tell you how much you need to work toward developing conflict resolution skills.
6 Quick Must-Knows About Arguing to Keep in Mind
Before we get into the meat and potatoes, here are 6 quick must-knows about arguments that you should keep in mind, whether they’re with a coworker, a sibling, a significant other, or a random stranger:
- There is always a chance that there will be conflict, and there will always be positive or negative consequences. You just have to be ready to manage your emotions.
- The results will be much better if you are actively engaged in the conflict (in a positive manner, of course) instead of avoiding it. One study by Dr. Benjamin P. Chapman even found that bottling up our emotions can increase our chances of death! Yikes.
- Not everyone will be as motivated as you about addressing the conflict peacefully. You must accept this situation and navigate it accordingly. For example, let’s say you’ve spilled some milk and are worried about upsetting someone. Try starting the conversation in a light tone or with an apology. Even if you’re not wrong, it can smooth things over quite a bit. But how often do you see that happening?
- Acquire people skills. These skills include body language, communication skills, and kindness, all of which contribute to better relationships with others.
- Show respect to the other person to manage conflict better. A study has shown that if either party gives respect to the other, it can lead to more relaxed political arguments—and that is saying something. When was the last time you saw a calm political argument?
- The environment plays an important role in shaping a conflict into productive disagreement or a full-fledged battle. If you’re cooped up in your home or in an environment you’re used to arguing in (such as the bedroom, for some couples), try avoiding these locations when you’re feeling argumentative.
Now, moving on to how to argue.
9 Tips You Can Use to Win Any Argument, Any Time
Let’s say you KNOW you’re going to be in an argument, whether it’s:
- spending time with a friend or family member who’s prone to arguing
- attending an event with a group of people low in agreeableness
- presenting your sales pitch to skeptical business owners
What do you do in this case?
Here are the 9 tips you should master.
Humanize the Participants
OK, let’s be honest. How many times have you gone into an argument thinking the other party was beneath you or lacked common sense?
The first step is to think about the people you argue with as partners, not opponents:
- think of how they are humans
- think of how they are complex, just like you
- think of how they have their own life stories
- think of them as partners, not opponents
The more you see them as equals, the more you’ll be able to stay level-headed.
Here’s how to humanize your argument partner:
- Take them out to dinner! While dinner arguments DO happen, the very act of sharing food with someone else helps people cooperate better and resolve conflict faster, according to a 2016 study by Kaitlin Woolley.
- Think of your great memories together. In the heat of the moment, this can be difficult, but reminding yourself of your fun times together helps counteract any argument flames.
- In a business situation, you might try adding in some humanizing behavior—shaking their hand, bringing them some muffins, or even offering them a mint or a stick of gum will help build trust.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Avoid yes-or-no questions. These questions usually start with “Do/Are/Could” and can be shot down easily:
- “Do you think increasing inventory is a good idea?” No.
- “Could you help with my project?” No.
- “Are aliens real?” No.
Instead, ask questions to learn what you’re missing from their point of view. Gain context by tackling these 3 key points (you can even ask these directly!):
- “What do we disagree about?”
- “Why do we disagree about it?” (Is it a clash of core values that makes it difficult for you to agree?)
- “How can we use this time to understand each other better?”
Open-ended questions are usually the “Why/What/How/Where/When” questions:
- “What is the best way we can increase inventory?”
- “How can you help with my project?”
- “Why do you think people believe in aliens?”
At the end of the day, everything we do has a purpose, a goal we need to fulfill. Nobody knows when an argument will start and when it will turn into a conflict, a verbal spat, or something more, um… nefarious.
That is why you should define “winning” before you get into an argument with someone:
- Do you want to be assertive and convince the other person that you are right? This is not a sustainable approach toward conflict resolution in most cases.
- Do you want to find a middle ground between the two of you?
- Is your goal to abandon the argument after a certain period has passed? This would require stalling and being stubborn.
- Are you ready to move from your position and accept their terms completely?
- Is winning about learning something new, even if it means you were wrong?
- Do you want to build on this relationship or remove yourself from it?
Action Steps: Think about this now—What are your goals in any argument? Every topic is different, so make sure you define boundaries, i.e., on which topic(s) you are willing to compromise, which you are okay conceding, and which you are willing to argue about and win.
Ask the Golden Question
Sometimes, tackling an issue head-on is just too fast.
Instead, you might want to find out how people come to their beliefs in the first place. Ask this golden question:
“What’s something you used to believe that you no longer do?”
I use this question as an icebreaker in some of the groups I’ve been in, and it works great because you’ll hear someone’s narrative about belief.
It’s also a way to softly ask someone, “Do you change your mind?” And 99% of the time, they’ll come up with something (because who hasn’t changed their mind before?).
This golden question can help the other person see their own vulnerabilities and empathize as well!
One more golden question for mid-argument:
“Could anything change your mind, and what would you need to hear for that to happen?”
Sometimes asking this is a way to check if arguing is pointless or not. Would ANYTHING change their mind? I love to ask. Because if they think about it and say no, we are both wasting our time. But if they think about it and say yes, then ask them to tell you what evidence they need. Can you get that evidence? If so, argument won!
Posture, tone, eye movement, hand gestures, and other secondary communication aspects can define a conflict. Whenever there is an argument—and you want to resolve it peacefully—even if the other person is shouting at you, you should tell their subconscious that you are not there for a fight.
The best way you can do that is by maintaining your tone and keeping it soft. Whenever people argue, their rate of speech and volume increases. Moderately increased pace means increased chances of persuasion; however, going too fast leads to hostility.
But it’s not easy.
Whenever the pace of communication increases and voices get raised, both sides get frustrated. At this point, the ability to change minds and see a new perspective gets thrown out the window, and you start to think:
“There is no winning an argument now, just escalating it.”
But hold on. There IS a way!
Here are a few things you can and SHOULD do:
- Slow things down and say this out loud: “Fighting won’t help me conclude.”
- Introduce pauses into the conversation. Pausing can actually be a sign of power and calm—people in an argument usually have less time for silence. Instead of yelling, try listening.
- Show respect to the other person.
The last one is perhaps the most difficult conflict resolution skill to master—maintaining your cool while the other person is almost shouting at you can be hard…
Respecting them may seem next to impossible!
It takes a bit of practice and presence of mind, but I believe you can do it with the right mindset! And pausing helps. If someone snaps at me, I let it hang in the air with a long pause. Oftentimes they realize they were out of line and backtrack or apologize.
Action Steps: Practice pausing the next time someone says or does something rude to you. Catch your breath. Observe their reaction. Does it help? Do you respond better? Use power pauses as your de-escalation weapon.
Focus on Inflection
Inflection refers to modifying the tone and pitch of your voice, usually at the end of a sentence. When you talk to someone, you inflect your sentences either upward or downward, which indicates whether you are questioning or answering them, exercising authority or cooperating with them..
Both inflections have their uses, but the upward inflection is known for its ability to de-escalate conflict as it tells the other person that you aren’t commanding them—just asking a question or making a statement.
After all, that’s what most arguments stem from, right?
Watch this video from voice instructor Amy Carroll to understand the importance of inflection during speech (skip to the 1:00 mark for an example).
Action Steps: Next time you are talking to someone, end one sentence on a high note and the next on a low note and focus on the other person’s body language. You will find that the upward inflection (ending on a high note) may project uncertainty or approval-seeking and might trigger others to become aggressive towards you, while the downward inflection (as if making a statement) will project confidence, competence, and gravitas.
Crack A Joke
What’s the best way to make someone relax?
In many instances, a joke is all you need to subconsciously give the other person a chance to relax, turning the conflict into a productive disagreement.
From then on, it’s smooth sailing.
Not only that, but a study by Dr. Laura Kurtz shows how that by making a joke, you are sub-communicating that you are friendly or are in favor of their well-being.
When this happens, you gain the benefit of the doubt: “Are they REALLY trying to argue? Surely not, since they’ve told me a joke.”
If you’re not a master jokester (I’m definitely not), it may take a bit of practice, especially if you aren’t someone who is used to joking in the middle of a conversation… or potential argument.
Here’s a rule of thumb: Don’t demonize the other person.
If a joke is targeted toward you, take it like a champ.
And pulling out the odd dad joke MIGHT work… but you might also want to brush up on your joke-making skills.
That’s how you argue!
Accept Their Position & Add a “BUT”
Sometimes we just can’t avoid an unreasonable argument.
Maybe you’re arguing with someone who isn’t willing to listen to your point of view at all.
Here’s the deal:
You accept their position, respect it, kiss it, and caress it.
Follow this by smashing it with a hammer. And that hammer is called “But…”
Remain confident and agree, but instead of building upon their statement with an “and,” introduce a “but” in a polite manner and show them where you are disagreeing.
For example, imagine yourself as a kid. Perhaps you don’t want to eat your carrots and peas, but your mother asked you nicely.How to win an argument
Instead of arguing with her and saying, “The carrots and peas are nasty AND I’m not hungry,” you could say, “The carrots and peas are well cooked, BUT I’m not hungry.”
Since you aren’t refusing them completely (and you added in a nice little compliment), your mother won’t feel attacked directly.
Action Steps: When talking to someone, be it a friend or a family member, highlight specific points where you agree and specific points where you don’t. Keep those in mind, but don’t practice them out loud or you’ll most likely spend the night on your couch. This is just to help you develop conflict resolution skills and understand how to argue productively.
By highlighting these key points, you will be able to defend your position better, have a much higher chance of swaying the other person’s belief, and turn conflict into a productive disagreement.
Arguments Are a Seed
Here’s a perspective change: Arguments are a seed.
Instead of arguing to win and change minds, have peaceful discussions just to plant a seed.
The goal of an argument isn’t to win; the goal is to be heard.
Brownie points if you’ve managed to come out of the discussion thinking to yourself, “That was worth my time” because you learned something/gained a new perspective/avoided an argument.
Because the real prize from a calm discussion is coming away with valuable insight that you didn’t have before.
And that wraps it up!
I hope you learned how to master your arguments and come out a winner in your own unique way.
And if you’d like to work on your empathy, check this out: 10 Powerful Tips You Can Use to Practice Self-Compassion