How to Win an Argument

August 31st, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

This is a follow-up to the recent Dealing With Difficult Relatives post. That original post sets the context for this article, so if you haven’t read the original article, you should definitely do that first. Otherwise, you won’t likely understand the context for this post. If you expect this will be an article about how to out-debate your co-workers, you’re coming at it from the wrong context. Read the original post first.

How do you handle the situation where the other person continually sucks you into an argument that you never seem to be able to win?

In a typical argument, each person tries to prove themselves right and the other person wrong. Of course, we all know what happens in the end — each person only ends up more entrenched in their views, regardless of who seems to deliver the most dominant argument.

An argument cannot be won with resistance. You will only strengthen the other person’s resolve. At best you will both leave in a state of stubbornness, but little communication will have actually occurred.

The way to “win” an argument is to aim for a goal other than being right. The other person will be prepared to defend against someone who is trying to prove themselves right. Trying to prove yourself right and the other person wrong is like making a frontal assault on an entrenched enemy position. You’ll need overwhelming force to win, and your victory will come at great cost, if you can even pull it off. Plus you’ll leave your relationship wounded in the end.

So instead of trying to be right, I’ve found that the best way to win an argument is to go for an entirely different goal. This has worked for me every time I’ve applied it, and I’ve used it dozens of times.

If you aren’t trying to win the argument, then what is your goal? I suggest you set the goal of attempting to raise the other person’s awareness while maintaining your own sense of inner peace. By this I mean that you focus on helping the other person become more aware of the full extent of their behavior and how it affects you and others, but without taking ownership of anything the other person says.

This means you keep your focus on the other person and their behavior. Whenever s/he tries to pigeonhole you into a negative role, you simply side-step their comments and then redirect their own energy back upon them. In a way it’s like verbal martial arts. Never defend against any of their comments. Simply redirect the comments back to the person.

In other words, you don’t attack — ever. You merely deflect the other person’s attacks back to them, over and over. You become like a mirror. So the more the other person tries to attack you, the more they weaken themselves. People can’t punch themselves in the face for too long.

If someone were to try to attack me in an argument, I would just say things like, “You seem to be fairly upset about this. Why do you think that is?” or “So you’re saying you’d like to feel free to disregard my requests if you don’t agree with them. Is that correct?” or “Is this how you’d like to continue to feel about this situation?” or “Do you feel your behavior towards me is honorable and respectful?”

Stay focused on the other person and their feelings, not your own. But don’t take ownership of anything they say. Simply allow it to pass through you like a knife through water and come out the other side. And metaphorically speaking, keep asking the person about the knife they’re holding and how they feel about it.

Usually the other person will start by answering all my questions with the words, “Because you…” My goal is to help guide the other person to focus on their own feelings, and I know I’m making progress when their answers begin taking the form of “Because I…” I help them to take ownership of their feelings.

Remember that if someone offers you a gift, and you decline to accept it, the other person still owns that gift. The same is true of insults and verbal attacks. In order for there to be any sting to the attack, you must accept it. Simply decline the “gift” and the other person won’t be able to land a single blow no matter how hard they try. Be like air or water — if they try to attack you, they merely wear themselves out.

This takes practice, but it works extremely well. The key is to put yourself into a state of compassion and empathy and keep reminding yourself that the negativity isn’t about you — it’s an internal issue the other person is dealing with. So whatever the other person says, you simply reflect it back to them. This will have the effect of raising the other person’s awareness. Many times people can’t handle that, so they’ll either blow up emotionally or give up. Either way, it helps put an end to the previous destructive relationship and paves the way for something better to emerge.

A technique I use to keep myself focused on raising the other person’s awareness is that I form a mental image of that person’s “higher self.” I imagine the best possible form of that person — their soul if you will — standing in the room with us like an apparition. Then I put myself in a state where I feel like I’m channeling the thoughts of that higher self, and I allow the higher self to speak through me and to ask all the questions. This is amazingly effective — in fact, it works so well that I wonder if I am indeed channeling some kind of higher self. I’ve learned to simply trust the words that pop into my mind and speak them, even if they don’t seem like the right thing to say from a logical standpoint. Invariably the questions and observations do help guide the other person to be more in tune with their own highest and best self. They begin seeing their behavior and the relationship in a whole new light, and that’s what often leads to some sort of emotional breakdown. Tears are common.

There are two ways this type of conversation ends — 1) the other person can’t handle facing the situation and basically runs away, or 2) the other person has some kind of emotional catharsis which makes it possible to heal the relationship. Most of the time the outcome is #2 if the relationship bond is fairly strong, and #1 if the relationship bond is weak. I find that typically this takes 2-3 hours of conversation to reach the point of #2. If you hit #1, that’s OK too. Just keep using the same strategy on each encounter, and you’ll eventually hit #2 — either that or you’ll permanently scare the person away from trying to argue with you.

Now if you don’t have this kind of time, then you may want to use a short-cut approach to simply delay the confrontation, or the relationship may be so loose that it’s not worth the effort to raise the other person’s awareness. In that case you can simply deflect the arguments with humor, or you can ignore them altogether.

It does take practice and patience to use this type of approach, and it hinges upon your ability to keep yourself in a high state of awareness, focusing on unconditional love and compassion for the other person. I don’t think of it as having a thick skin but rather as having reflective skin or even no skin. You have to put yourself in a state where you are unattackable. This will frustrate the other person to no end, but that’s the point — to let the other person burn off all their negative energy by swinging at air. And as they grow tired, their own shields will begin to collapse. But instead of attacking at that point, you empathize and connect with them and strive to reconnect them with their truest and best self.

For me this has become an ingrained way of communicating. Whenever I get attacked by someone wanting to provoke an argument, I simply see it as a cry for help. The other person is disconnected from their true self, and my role (time permitting) is to help reconnect them. I can’t do that if I step into the ring with them. But I can let them swing at air and exhaust themselves until they’re ready to face the parts of themselves that are causing them this pain, and then they can begin to reconnect and to heal.

If you try this approach, and you can’t seem to keep yourself in a higher state of awareness without being dragged into negativity by the other person, then you’ve got a different situation at hand, one which cannot be solved at the same level of thinking in which this post is written. I’ll write another post on how to handle that situation soon.


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