“You can’t please everyone.”
“You can’t argue with those people.”
“They’re not even human at this point.”
Whoops, I meant “I have to disagree.” You can argue with anyone, and please them in the process.
You can save the world.
"How would you save the world?"
Freshmen WPI Students were asked this question during Orientation to get them talking to one another.
I told the person next to me, "I would create a more effective decision-making system where experts can input their knowledge and come to the best conclusion. Plus our voting system's kinda screwed right now." (Yeah, I’m a bit of a weirdo)
The next thing he said could have made me sad, but instead it put a smile on my face:
"You can't please everyone."
I smiled because I knew exactly what to say back:
"It IS possible to please everyone.
If instead of arguing to win, you argue to find the truth, then it’s more like a cooperative effort than a fight. You can please everyone if pleasing them means them getting closer to the truth."
What he said after that is why I believe productive arguments are possible, and actually fun:
"You know, I think you're right. You've changed my mind on this one."
REALLY? It was that simple?
The first thing that came to mind was questioning why he conceded so easily and so genuinely. What I said could seriously work.
I’m going to outline exactly how you can “please everyone”, ‘win’ in every argument, and save the world.
How to Have the Best Arguments of Your Life
Remember the last time you had an argument?
If you lost, did you feel convinced?
It’s more likely that you stuck to your original ideas, because there were parts of your argument that you forgot or were too afraid to say. You know how you remember all the things you wanted to say AFTER the argument? “Ugh! NOW I remember those statistics that show how ineffective torture is?” You’re not convinced because there was still evidence left undiscussed.
If you won, do you think you convinced your opponent? What makes you say that?
(If you want to answer these questions in writing, feel free to drop a quick comment at the bottom of the page, I’d love to learn about your experience.)
If you answered “YES!” to either of these questions, that’s awesome! If you answered “NO!” you probably feel pretty terrible about it, but I can help you feel less terrible by showing you how to actually influence someone (Also skim through “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie). Regardless, you will learn something timeless, inspiring, and actionable from reading further.
What’s the point of an argument?
What do you want to get out of an argument? A sense of pride? Influence on the other person’s view? Or knowledge of the best course of action based on what’s true?
I have wanted to influence another person’s view many times, because I thought I was completely correct in my view.
However, there’s a better way of going about this.
Searching for the truth instead of seeking to impose on another person will not only affirm your viewpoint to both you and your opponent if it’s correct, it will also allow you to seriously analyze why your opponent believes what they do.
If the point of an argument is for both parties to find the truth, then it is completely inefficient to fight and refuse progress instead of to openly cooperate.
“If you lose credibility by just admitting fault, then you didn’t have any in the first place.”
- Admiral Fujitora
“Win” in every argument
Reframe both of your mindsets
Believe that you’re searching for the truth, not for the viral clip of you “owning” your opponent. (IMO a cooperative and informed discussion without trickery is way more badass)
It’s okay to be lost, wrong, or unclear.
Just don’t act like the pesky salesman when you can act like a smooth closer:
“What were you looking to leave this conversation with?”
You don’t have to be that formal to reason with anyone, but giving your attention and kindness first certainly helps you and your opponent open up.
How to reason with anyone
Acknowledge both you and your opponent’s flaws
Your opponent’s flaws
However many flaws you may spot in your opponent’s argument, do NOT jump to label them an idiot. Remember your goal: discern the truth. I think of spotting flaws as cooperating with my opponent to find the truth and strengthen both of our arguments.
If you’re still struggling to acknowledge your opponent as an equal, try to recall something you did 5 years ago.
Oh my god did I really stay silent in the middle of that conversation and walk away without saying anything? How could I be so stupid?
You first have to be ‘stupid’ before you can become an expert
Just like I was terrible at talking to people in middle school, and intentionally improved myself in that area.
Recognizing your past mistakes is a fantastic sign of progress, and that’s precisely what you want to happen after an argument, not hurt feelings and alienation. You could even think of your opponent as a younger version of yourself (and like your younger self, no-one will take kindly to being patronized, so please don’t do that).
If you’ve believed something for a while or have a passion for the subject, it can be difficult to acknowledge your flaws, even when they’re pointed out.
Are you achieving your most ambitious goals?
That means you’re failing at something, and if you can identify what that flaw is, you can address it and move closer to your goals.
Recognizing where you can improve will make you a better person simply by being more informed about who you currently are and showing you an easy area in which to take action.
You aren’t the failure, your actions are.
If you happen to realize where there’s a flaw in your point during an argument, embrace it. Hiding it will only make the issue worse, and you can gain a more complete confidence in your argument by patching up the hole. Be open, particularly in analyzing your argument. By the same notion, you should also be thoroughly analyzing your opponent’s arguments.
Agree with your opponent
WHAT DID YOU SAY? Why should I agree with that bastard?!
The reason is simple: If a person strongly believes something, there must be a basis for it. In other words, at least one part of their argument is correct.
So when you deny their argument completely, it makes YOU seem like the illogical one.
There’s also a psychological reason you should first seek to understand and agree with your opponent: it makes them more receptive to your information.
One of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This a good habit for being open to new information, and it also has the small bonus of making your conversations 10 billion percent more productive for both parties (so it even applies another of the 7 habits: “Think win-win”).
Explain your thought process
Make your thinking impossible to misunderstand.
This is a basic marketing concept: if your message isn’t clear, why should anyone listen? Harsh, but with so much information in the world, people have to choose who and what they spend their time listening to.
How did you come to the beliefs you have now?
It wasn’t like you suddenly knew when you were born, or even just by being around your parents. You went through an iterative process, one where you gradually refined your ideas based on the people and information around you.
Now you might be an expert on the death penalty, but is your opponent?
You can be so thorough you make them an expert, and it’s actually pretty easy.
Run them through the same process that you went through to come to the conclusions you have now (but at like 100 times the speed).
Here’s an example: “I recently read a series of studies that demonstrate how the lethal injection isn’t as humane or cheap as we might think. I don’t remember the exact details, but it shows how lethal injection is actually made up of 3 injections. The first injection is supposed to completely numb the pain of the other killer injections, but because of costs, they resort to using simple painkillers or paralyzers, which means the accused is conscious and in horrible pain as the poison enters their body. Even with reduced costs within these methods, the death penalty for a single person costs I think around $20,000 to $40,000, both for legal and medical charges. Jail time might cost around the same over a longer period, too, though I’d have to double-check that.”
While writing this, I actually forgot that the 3-injection capital punishment is unique to each individual US state, some have 1, some have 4. A couple of states have abolished the death penalty entirely. This just goes to show how YOU WILL FORGET THINGS because YOU ARE HUMAN and we aren’t hooked up to a supercomputer, yet.
Put it into practice
What to do if something goes wrong
Remember what I said to you earlier? “It’s okay to be lost, wrong, or unclear.” Like most things, becoming an effective debater takes practice. (Not to be confused with a master debater)
It’s pretty likely you’ll forget to address something in your argument, be faced with an unexpected argument, or otherwise find that something goes wrong. Accept it. After all, now that the point of an argument is to discern the truth instead of to win, it’s perfectly acceptable to be wrong.
BONUS: If you’re able to show that you truly want to cooperate, your opponent will be nice on you too. 😉
How to prepare for an argument
On the rare occasion that you actually know when an argument is coming days in advance, you can take steps to prepare and plan for what’s to come, so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Research! Even if it’s just a quick google search, you want to be informed. What kind of studies have their been on the effectiveness of X? Has Y been tried before? Which actors are in control of Z?
Outline! Yeah, I hate my high school English class too, but outlining outside of a classroom is actually extraordinarily helpful. You can see what you cover at a glance, and write down what comes to mind on each point.
Practice! In this context, that could mean you bring up the subject with your friends Come on Alex, I don’t want to talk about the implications of the death penalty with my buddy from preschool. I’m not saying you should fight with your friends, I’m saying you should be open with them, and that can mean discussing the hard topics. Actually having an argument with someone is the best way to learn how to argue (like most things). It could be your best friend, your professor, or a stranger you’re waiting for the elevator with. Get in the practice, the only way you’ll know what will happen is if you do it.
If you’re not up to arguing with friends yet, you could instead ask them to critique your argument as you tell it to them, or to proofread it in writing as if it were an essay.
Our opponents are NOT unreachable, NOT irrational monsters, and NOT [insert generalization here]. Our so-called “enemies” are just as human as the rest of us.
And that means a future of progress and cooperation is possible.