Why you’ll never win an argument…

…and how you can get what you want anyway.

I love a good argument.  More, I love a good Latin-American argument.  The back and forth, the incremental hyperbole, the wild gesticulations.  It’s fun, and if you’re paying attention you may actually learn something you didn’t already know.

The problem is, arguing for fun and arguing to resolve a conflict are two completely different endeavours.

When we’re in a conflict, whether in business or in a more personal relationship, we tend to want to win.  It’s completely natural.

“If only Bob could understand what I’m telling him, he’d agree with me.”  So we focus on explaining it.  And explaining it again.  And in countering the other guy’s arguments.  “Surely I can make him see reason, if only he’d listen!”

Here’s the problem:  my unstated goal in this discourse is to have the other fellow agree with me.  To put a finer point on it, to renounce his opinion and subscribe to mine.  To essentially say “You were right, and I was wrong”.  Not only is this nearly impossible, it’s not very appreciated.  No one likes to be wrong, fewer still like to admit to it, and of those few, almost none will thank you for it.  So even when you win, you lose.

Since that approach has never worked, and likely never will, maybe it’s time to try something different.

The most obvious?  Zip it.  Simply don’t have the discussion in the first place.  It’s not your job to correct everyone who doesn’t agree with you.  Smile, move on.  Letting other people be ‘wrong’ is liberating, and will free up a lot of your time for more important things.  Like, you know, the things you make money doing.

For those times you can’t do that, when a conflict needs to be resolved, or a negotiation is getting heated, try this approach:

“Bob, I hear what you’re saying and I get it.  I’ve always found you to be a reasonable, informed guy and I like to think I am too.  So I’m sure there’s something here I’m not understanding, otherwise I’d likely agree with you.  Let’s take a step back and help me try to understand where you’re coming from.”

Then take the time to fully understand the context, not just the content, of his side of the disagreement.  Once you feel you have a handle on it and he knows you have a handle on it, see if you still honestly disagree with his assessment.  If not follow up with:

“I understand what you’re saying.  If I were sitting where you’re sitting, I might feel the same way.  I’d like to think that if you were in my shoes, you’d feel as I do.  I look at it differently because where you see a,b,c, I see x,y,z.  Still, I can’t help but feel that, in spite of these differences, there’s an arrangement here if we look for it.”

This approach works for four reasons:

  1. Until people feel they’ve been heard, understood and valued, they’re not ready to compromise.  It’s really as simple as that.
  2. People make decisions based on their reasons, not yours.  If you want to affect their decisions, you need to appeal to their reasoning, crazy or misinformed as you may find it to be.  Having them explain their reasoning is like having the other coach show you his playbook — take the time to study it!
  3. It changes the tone from a war about who’s wrong to a more collaborative fact-finding conversation.  Since you’re already prepared ahead of time with your supporting stats and research (right?), you’ll enjoy a strong advantage in this area.
  4. The rule of reciprocity applies — if you show you value their point of view, there’s significant pressure for them to value yours.  This opens the door to face-saving rationalizations for exactly the concessions you’re looking for.

At the very least, you convey that you’re willing to listen and that you respect and value your counterpart.  If you can do that, your conflict will be well on the way to resolution.


  1. Negotiation is a mixture of art and scnciee. The art comes from experience – the more you negotiate, the better you become. The scnciee lies in understanding a few basic truths about negotiations and using them to guide you in your efforts. It is common for people in negotiations to feel shy about asking directly for what they want. This often leads to misunderstanding that can derail the whole negotiation process. Be clear about what you expect from the discussion and make sure you understand what the other side expects from you.

    • jneurauter says:

      I agree with being clear about what you expect from a discussion, and what others expect from you. I would go further in saying that you can manage other people’s expectations as well. Also, while it seems intuitive that the more you do something, the better you become, I would say that it’s focused practice that makes for improvement, not just experience. Doing the same thing over and over again merely reinforces the same mistakes. It’s important to actively focus on the process and review in light of what you’re meant to be learning if you want to get better. Thanks for the feedback, and I appreciate your reading the blog!

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