How To Win An Argument In 3 Easy Steps

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Argument_260Mongo just pawn in game of life.” (Blazing Saddles.)


Recently, I published a series of posts on Facebook under the theme “How To Win An Argument”. Over the week it ran, there was a vast and animated flurry of comments and interactions — the posts hit a nerve.

Fortunately, because that series got so much traction in Facebook, I decided to gather them and post the series on my blog, so they’ll go into the archives (and thus can be easily accessed by anyone interested). I say “fortunately”, because apparently Zuckerberg and his evil Facebook henchmen decided that all my January posts before the 20th (which included the argument series) needed to vanish from the face of the earth (and the virtual earth that is social media). Poof. They’re gone. No explanation, no way to get them back (though I’ve been searching for tips and asking for help from colleagues — there are a lot of videos out there pretending to have the secret of restoring “lost” posts, but they don’t work).

I’m kinda stunned… but glad I’d already copied and pasted those initial posts on my blog. I’m doing the same with other FB posts from the past — just getting them copied into a Word doc, in case Zuck goes berzerk again. Jeez Louise, you probably need to take the same precautions if you have valuable posts you don’t want to lose.

So, Lesson #1: Do not trust Facebook to archive anything. The joint is crawling with post-devouring demons or something.

I’m not saying that everything I post there needs to be carved in stone. But I do write some cool shit on my wall, occasionally. It’d be nice if it remained there.

Anyway, below is a mildly-edited collection of that series on winning an argument. I didn’t save the dozens and dozens of comments, and that’s a shame — it was a great thread, full of other lessons. For example: The easiest way to get a whole bunch of folks frothing is to talk about (a) sex, or (b) their belief systems. They go nuts.

As you’ll see below, I just laid out my views on how to handle people who want to argue and how to define “winning” for yourself… and that just pissed off some folks. Even discussing arguing inflamed their knee-jerk need to argue. Humorous, ironic, and illustrative of how whacko human beings can be. Also, as a marketer, informative — especially if you want or need to introduce some form of argument or alternative view into your advertising.

And, yes, this entire series is very much aimed at marketers. Great ads seldom argue, though they may be pushing buttons right and left. The psychology is subtle, but awesome.

So, without further ado, here’s that series. Love to hear your comments… which will all go safely into the blog archives, where Zuckerberg can’t touch them:

How To Win An Argument, Step 1: The primary rule is simple — never argue back, when your goal is persuasion.

No one, in the history of humankind, has ever changed their mind because of an argument. When cornered (logically or physically), humans dig in and will sacrifice wealth, health and dignity before admitting they’re wrong. They WILL change their minds, but not because you demolished their belief system with crap like logic and debate moves. They change because of an internal epiphany that is akin to death/rebirth.

So, Rule #1: If you want to “win”, never engage in an argument.

[My comment, mid-way through the fray in the Facebook comment section: "Interesting that several comments here reveal a complete misunderstanding of how to win an argument. I guess this little tutorial is needed. There are also several pro's commenting here who truly do get what I'm talking about, and I appreciate the specific tips they're sharing. Negotiation and persuasion are NOT part of our default equipment, folks..."]

How To Win An Argument, Step 2: Now you need to DEFINE what “win” means to you.

Is it to persuade the person you’re up against? That’s gonna require some deft moves (which we’ll discuss later).

Often, however, there may be an audience you want to persuade — so you’re actually playing to the crowd. (Give your opponent enough rope to hang himself, win the meta-discussion.) Or, you may be genuinely interested in other points of view (or acquiring intel on how the opposition operates).

Traditional arguing is just a shouting match with childish rules (first one to cry or leave loses). Not engaging the argument doesn’t necessarily mean splitting, though — you really need to understand WHY you’re in this situation, and what you want out of it.

This simple moment of defining your goal will help you with every single subsequent decision. (“Art Of War” aficionados — and chess players — will happily lose every single battle up to the last one, for the victory. But you need to know what “victory” means for you. Being stubborn — the first clue you’re dealing with a rookie — may win the immediate round, but ruin all future moves.)

[My comments in the fray for Step 2: ”Once you get your Zen game on, coming up against someone who uses stubbornness as their main tactic will become a moment of joy (and easy, quick victory)…”

“BTW: If just shutting him up is your goal, mockery works best. I don’t recommend this, cuz it can lead to fisticuffs. You ‘win’ by shutting him down, but ‘lose’ by having teeth knocked out. Mockery works as a reframing tool — you discern the ape-brain fear behind his anger, and turn the conversation on that. The focus instantly becomes his fear and his reaction to being mocked over it. Few humans can avoid sputtering and regressing to infantile states when their deepest shame is publicly ridiculed. Very, very dirty trick, and probably you deserve whatever happens next if you use it…”

“Important: Being ‘armed’ with tactics that win is a huge responsibility. It’s like becoming skilled at martial arts, and you ARE responsible for the consequences of superior firepower. This is why knowing your goal is so critical.”

“Don’t get distracted by recent situations you’ve been in, guys. This is all pretty simple — for an easier life, and better marketing tactics, don’t argue… and get clear on what you consider a ‘win’. It can be win-win, win-lose, or no-play (or any of many other results). The key is to be conscious, not get sucked into time/energy-wasting exercises in futility, and to further your own goals…”

How To Win An Argument, Final Step: Okay, you realize that arguing isn’t persuasion, and you’ve defined what you want out of the situation. This is equal to (a) a reality check (so you stop doing what doesn’t work)… and (b) goal setting — the fundamentals of growth.

Next, you use the tools that DO work — which just happen to be the same tools great salesmen use to persuade skeptics to buy. You disarm anger, reframe the context (so you’re not wallowing in the stuck-in-one-place psychological wastelands that stubborn people like to fight in), and “come in through a side door” (as old school salesmen like to say).

You don’t engage head-on, you ignore irrationality, and because you’re so clear on your goal, you take your ego out of it. Use the old improv theater tactic of never being negative yourself — say “Yes…AND…” while moving things toward the discussion you actually want to have.

If you’ve ever been in the presence of a master negotiator, break down what happened. Resistance was soothed, bonding occurred, and you likely found yourself moving off your position and agreeing with him… even if you began on opposite sides.

In short… you “win” an argument by reframing what “win” means, so that you exit the nobody-wins context of belligerence (keeping your ego out of it), and use your salesmanship chops to find common ground, bond, navigate the mostly-unconscious landscape of your opponent (to avoid hot buttons while simultaneously teasing his positive emotional needs)… and relentlessly and patiently move toward your goal (whatever that is).

This is why great salesmen live better lives. They understand human behavior, so they always know what’s “really” going on, and they have skills to consciously persuade or redirect even irrational, emotionally-discordant folks to a better place. Where good things can occur.

At the very worst, you will never feel the angst of having gone through a useless shouting match (cuz you have self-permission to disengage at any time, since a “win” for you should include not feeling your blood pressure go up a single notch). And by realizing that a classic argument is almost never about what it looks like it’s about on the surface, you can control where the situation ends up.

So, take your ego out of it, define your desired results in terms of reality, and be a good salesman.

Make sense?

John Carlton slyly refers to himself as “the most ripped-off writer on the Web”, and no one on the inside of the online business world disagrees. Other marketers also call John “the most respected writing teacher alive”… and the list of well-known marketers who freely reference John as their primary mentor for writing sales messages is just staggering. John’s sales writing has been stalked for decades by many of the best (and most successful) marketers on the Internet, who freely admit to using John’s ads as templates for their own breakthrough pitches. As a teacher of writing sales messages for businesses, John is responsible for helping a verifiable mob of otherwise clueless entrepreneurs and small business owners get their act together.  John has a popular blog that you can check out here.

Originally published as Issue #219 on September 18, 2013

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