By far, the greatest secret to winning a debate is realizing that conflict isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s no absolute winner or loser. A debate should be a civilized conversation of opposing viewpoints using argumentation to provide insight. Too often, people enter into discourse expecting some cut-and-dry outcome that doesn’t exist. We live in a world of nuance. Why would a debate be any different?
With all that being said, however, some strategies can be utilized to gain the upper hand in disagreements. A warning about these strategies, should you choose to use them on loved ones or colleagues, is that they can be dangerous to those relationships. So, now that all that is out of the way, let’s get right into how to win any argument.
First and foremost, know that the moment your defense is based on emotion rather than reason means you’ve already lost. Argumentation, by its very nature, is based on reason and logic. Emotion is antithetical and useless. That said, the best way to stay reasonable is to be contrary to your instinct and be empathetic to the other side of the disagreement. For people basing their retorts on emotion, nothing is more frustrating than a person who responds with a level of understanding and reason. While they are banking on you to match their growing emotional distress to suck you into a black hole of yelling from which there is no return, your calm and collected demeanor utilizing uncommon sense and reason is the polar opposite. By taking this road, “winning” isn’t even a question. Rather it’s as if there’s no conflict even occurring.
It’s already been touched on, but empathy is a powerful tool in argumentation, especially when there’s an audience. By attempting to understand where the other side is coming from, you look as if you’re taking the high road in the eyes of the audience. This also makes for a much more enjoyable and spirited debate when both sides choose to empathize. An easy means of judging whether you can even approach that disagreement with empathy is to ask yourself, “Could I argue their points as well as my own?” That position is a rarity these days. However, that rarity makes it an even more powerful option. The one caution here is not to look so far into the other side that you get wrapped up in the emotions they might be bringing to the discourse. If you choose to buy into emotion, you lose.
Next is my absolute favorite, asking questions! Along with this are the required skills of listening. By far those who are the best at argumentation allow the other side to bluster and blow out their energy early on, prompting them to do so further through simple questions. “Could you clarify that, please?” “Interesting, where does that thought come from?” “What’s the next step in that thought process?”
Now as alluded to earlier, be careful how you use these questions with loved ones and colleagues. A light touch can make them incredible for clarification however a condescending approach is likely to net you a distinctly negative result. After asking an open-ended question, give the other party an appropriate time to respond. Genuinely listen to their response. If you’re planning your response the entire time they’re talking, not only is that profoundly rude, but you’re also likely going to miss context and details that can sink your rebuttal to the point you might as well have never stepped in to argue.
Finally, using summaries or recaps after someone has completed their thought-aloud is a fantastic way to make clear that you have a firm grasp of the debate. This does a few things simultaneously. First, it shows you distinctly taking the high ground and keeping the discourse on track. Second, it often trips up the other party who hasn’t been keeping track of their points. Third, it provides a potential audience with the knowledge of who’s really in control. The trick here goes back to listening intently and waiting to respond in summary rather than itching to blurt out your retort at every opportunity. As Joyce Meyer so eloquently put it, “Patience is not simply the ability to wait, it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.”
Argumentation and debate aren’t simply games of “gotcha”, rather they should be reasonable discourse between reasonable people. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. When this unfortunate circumstance arises, the strategies laid out above are fantastic ways to solve a disagreement without turning it into something far uglier. The reasonable mind will triumph over the malcontent, emotional diversionary tactics. It takes a level of maturity to not step down to the lowest level of discourse and instead to remain stalwart and patient. The rewards are by far and away worth the effort.