How to Win an Argument

People often tell me that I should have been a lawyer. My friends avoid getting into debates with me at all costs, and I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "I just can't win an argument with you." This is precisely why I pounced on the opportunity to write a post about how to win an argument. But when I sat down to write, I was overwhelmed with the number of bullet points I could include in an article about the art of persuasion and why it's a useful skill to have, both personally and professionally.

You wouldn't necessarily use the same tactics to convince your boss that you deserve a raise as you would in an argument with a partner over whose turn it is to wash the dishes. And while your well-crafted argument that Raising Arizona is the Cohen brothers' best film may work on your friends, your informal style of rhetoric might not be as effective when demanding your money back at customer service.

Of course, there are dozens of talking points for winning an argument I could include, but I knew there had to be a few fundamental elements that would span all categories of argumentation. Of all the advice you'll get about making a case for yourself, there are three basic points to remember. (See also: How to Get and Give Honest Feedback)

1. Don't Back Down

Confidence is the key to winning any argument. As British comedian Eddie Izzard says, only 10% of what people react to is what you actually say, and the rest of it is really a matter of how you look and sound. I don't know if his figure is completely accurate, but I do know that if you present your argument in a confident manner, people are more likely to listen to you and eventually agree with you. If you sound nervous or unsure of yourself, then your argument will sound weak before you even start making your case.

The only caveat here is to remember that it isn't about who is right or wrong. Being confident means making a strong and clear case, not demanding that you are right and everyone else isn't. Make your claim and stick to it without dismissing other viewpoints, which leads me to the next major element of winning an argument...

2. Listen to Your Opponent

Any Debate Team coach will tell you that knowing the other side of the argument is essential to winning the debate. How can you make counterpoints if you don't know what your opponent's argument will be? You can't always know exactly what your opponents will argue in response, but you can usually predict what their major points will be. This also means listening to your opponents as they make their claims.

For example, when I was discussing which points to include in this article with a friend, she suggested, "Yeah, don't back down, and don't second-guess yourself." I argued that both of those statements were really saying the same thing. "No they aren't," she said. "Yes they are," I said calmly, remembering that remaining calm is also part of maintaining confidence in an argument. So I calmly listened as she made her rebuttal, "No, what I meant by second guessing is not to have any doubts or change your mind during the argument, no matter what." I smiled wryly. "In other words," I said, "don't back down." She nodded and laughed, "Touche." I "won" because I stood my ground, and I listened carefully to her and used her own statements to finally prove my point.

3. Use Logic and Factual Evidence

This final point is perhaps best illustrated by one of the most brilliant and popular rhetoricians of our time, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart. Even if you aren't a fan of his comedy and commentary, you have to admit that he uses logic in a way that is both convincing and appealing to his audience.

Here's what Jon Stewart does well that can be applied to all types of arguments:

  • He repeats examples in a way that drives the point home, such as showing several major news clips to demonstrate the absurdities in mainstream media.
  • He finds flaws in his opponents' arguments, and even if he has a team of writers to help him research, he is good on his feet.
  • He can admit when he's wrong; see the recent battle over the Chris Wallace interview on Fox News for a great example of this.

Even if you are one of those people who says you don't like to argue, remember that getting what you want in life isn't about the argument. It's really about how you state what you want; and if you are confident, a good listener, and logical, you can't lose.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I think knowing how to form a good -- and fair! -- argument is such an important skill. Even if you don't win, your opponent should have a lot of respect for you in the end.

Readers, is there anything else you think is important in making a good argument?

Guest's picture

These are great tools to use when you absolutely must win an argument. I'd also like to add a paraphrased bit from Dale Carnegie - the surefire way to win an argument is to avoid one :-)

Guest's picture

Maybe it's just me, but I think any time your friends avoid getting into a debate with you at all costs... you've already lost.

Guest's picture

You sound annoying (just kidding!)

I'd like to elaborate on #3 by stating that you should make sure your argument is factually correct (it's implied in the article but not stated explicitly even though it's vital). Jenny McCarthy and Sarah Palin are great examples on how you can win arguments while being wildly wrong (McCarthy on autism and Palin on 90% of what she says) because all of the facts and logic in the world can't stand up against "I'm a mother and mom's just know."

Also, choose your battles. Even if you are right everytime, don't win every argument. The people in your life will get sick of you very quickly if they feel they can't defend themselves against you.

Guest's picture

Instead of Sarah Palin, you could have simply put [insert politician's name here]!

Guest's picture

You should send this message over to Washington! Great post with excellent posts.