11 Science-Backed Tips for Winning an Argument
For many people, arguing is something to avoid. But arguments can be used for good—they can inform, sharpen thinking, and challenge old ideas in important ways. The expert tips below will help you argue more incisively, which, in turn, will probably make you more likely to win the discussion. (Of course, winning means different things to different people—so not all of these concepts are about making someone else think you’re right.)
1. DETERMINE THE NATURE OF THE ARGUMENT.
According to Mark Porrovecchio, a professor of rhetoric and a debate coach at Oregon State University, understanding the nature of a disagreement will help you determine how best to handle it. “Argument styles vary according to context [and] genre,” he tells Mental Floss. “What might work when arguing with a significant other could backfire when debating with a colleague. The goal is to be mindful of the type of situation you are in … and to be willing to adjust your approach based on a host of situational factors.”
You should adjust your tone—and even the content of your argument—depending on the person with whom you are having it and the place it’s happening. The conversation in a private setting may be a different from one in a public space. This particular tactic, Porrovecchio says, is as old as debate itself: Both the Sophists and Aristotle used it.
2. KNOW YOUR OPPONENT'S PERSONALITY TYPE …
Sometimes you won’t know what your opponent values or what their background is—but sometimes, you will. Use that information.
Most people are either reactive or analytical, says Prince Ghuman, a professor at Hult International Business School and coauthor of the book Allure: the Neuroscience of Consumerism. “Some people tend to be more reactive, so you can convince them using techniques that appeal to them—emotion and empathy," he tells Mental Floss. "Others seem to be more deliberate—you’ll need to provide an analytical support for your argument."
3. … AND MORAL IDENTITY.
In political and ideological arguments, different sides often have fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. According to the moral foundations theory, a framework proposed by a group of social psychologists, most people see society through six different binaries: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. A politically liberal person, for example, might be more affected by an argument that stresses compassion and fairness, whereas conservatives might find loyalty and authority to be more important. Each person will have a unique idea of which concept in each pair carries more weight, and in an argument, knowing what the other side values can help frame your talking points.
“One reason it’s so hard to reach across the ideological divide is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethics of their own side, rather than that of their opponents,” journalist Olga Khazan explained in an Atlantic video. Framing your argument to appeal to your opponents' moral code rather than your own can help you win.
4. USE EMOTION—BUT DON'T REST YOUR ENTIRE ARGUMENT ON IT.
Not only is arguing sans emotion almost impossible if you're a human being, it’s also not a great way to succeed. “Every argument, even many seemingly factual arguments, contains an emotional element,” Porrovecchio says.
According to psychologist Sherrie Campbell, author of Success Equations: A Path to Living an Emotionally Wealthy Life, you should include feelings when you make your case, but don’t go too far with an emotional point—especially in professional settings. When it comes to personal disagreements, uncomfortable feelings can sometimes be necessary, and while kindness is important, so is honesty.
“Sometimes emotional arguments that bring about sadness can help people get to the core of where the hurt and frustration is," Campbell says. "As long as the person you're arguing with has empathy and can put caring over being right, then emotional arguments can be effective.”
Ideally, you should try to keep it balanced. “An argument that relies solely on emotion should be treated with suspicion,” Porrovecchio says. Feelings without information or details to back them up fall flat if the other person can’t relate.
5. MAKE YOUR CASE WITH EMPATHY.
“Connect to the listener by conveying your story through one person’s example. Personify, rather than generalize,” Ghuman suggests. He cites research [PDF] by psychologists at the University of Oregon that shows people will donate more money to an individual in need than a group of people. That’s because most of us can empathize with one person but find it harder to relate to groups in the same way. When arguing, use this tactic to your advantage by finding (or imagining) a specific person who might be helped by what you are arguing for.
For instance, if you are arguing that Peggy shouldn’t be fined for parking her car in a tow zone because she was trying to rescue a dog in the street, it would make more sense to describe who she is specifically. Rather than call her “Peggy, a dog owner,” describing her as “Peggy, who has adopted a mutt, a pitbull, and an elderly chihuahua,” would render her more sympathetic. Empathetic details shouldn't be used as replacements for factual information, though; they should be additions to the facts.
6. USE STORYTELLING.
Storytelling works hand-in-hand with empathy and puts data to support your argument in context. Pull all your information together—using empathy, facts, and emotions—to create a compelling story, and your argument will be tougher to beat. When your point seems part of a narrative arc, each aspect of what you're arguing is harder to pick on.
Need a template? Porovecchio recommends the TED format. “I think TED Talks have gained popular cachet because they often manage to balance a degree of detail and fact with a personable, narrative-driven delivery style,” he says.
7. INFLUENCE YOUR ADVERSARY WITH PHYSICAL CUES.
People unconsciously mimic others in social situations, a behavior that psychologists believe is associated with emotional connection. Consciously imitating the posture and movement of your opponent is also a well-known way to bring someone over to your side. Try leaning back if your opponent does so, or cross your arms or legs the way they do. Looking them in the eye when you are listening to them speak is another to reduce their confidence in their own argument—and you’ll look stronger, too. You can even lower your voice a notch to sound more dominant, according to this study.
8. REMAIN CALM.
Whether you are using or responding to an analytic or emotional argument, keep it as relaxed as possible. “The best thing to do when in an argument is to stay calm and talk slowly—you can't yell and talk slowly at the same time,” Campbell says. “Forcing yourself to talk slowly helps to keep the emotions under control and your thoughts rational.” If that sounds like a challenge, it is: “This takes a lot of discipline, but it's a simple thing to focus on.”
9. PRACTICE YOUR DELIVERY.
Like most other skills, spending time arguing will make you better at it. Debate in high school, college, or in a professional-development context “should be viewed as a way to practice the skills of arguing,” Porrovecchio says. “You work to improve your technique, your content, your delivery; then use what you have learned in real world situations.” Porrovecchio says he’s seen his students become not just better debaters over time, but also “better public speakers and critical thinkers.”
10. REFRAME THE DEBATE.
Not all arguments have to be about being right, which some people define as winning. You might consider it a win if your opinion is valued and considered by the person you are disagreeing with—even if you don't change their mind. “Instead of the word argument, replace it with conversation. If you're just having a conversation, then winning is off the table, and a productive discussion can occur,” Campbell says.
11. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, WALK AWAY.
Sometimes it gets ugly, or the argument seems to be going in circles. If you’re not getting anywhere in a discussion, “ask your opponent directly: ‘Is there anything I can do to change your mind?’ If they say that nothing will change their mind, believe them, and walk away,” Ghuman says. Sometimes an argument is a draw—and that’s OK. You’ve won if you’ve learned something, Ghuman adds: “Healthy argument can expand your perspective and open your mind.”