You probably are familiar with the famous quote of Mark Twain, “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”
Of course, we all have been there, haven’t we?
We all have those people in our lives. They have strong beliefs and no reasoning to back them up.
So they try to make it up by taking the moral high ground.
They consider their points to be morally superior for no other reason than they themselves are making them.
Not only do they love the sound of their own voices, but they want you to love it too. They don’t deeply care about free speech — of their own. Not so much of yours.
These people don’t want to hear anything that will remotely contradict what they already believe to be true.
They don’t want any dialogues.
They only want to win by default.
And to do so, they say whatever they want, hear whatever they want, and bend the narrative however they deem convenient.
If you have tried to have a civil debate with any such person, you know how it goes. There’s almost no way to get your argument across their heads.
So how do you win an argument with such people? What is the winning strategy to make it happen as many times as you want?
Don’t Try To Win the Argument
Let me open it up with another Mark Twan quote that, in my opinion, is far more precise than the previous:
Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.
I get it. When someone is being obnoxious, loud, and unreasonably stubborn, it’s hard to resist the pure urge for retaliation.
That’s the part of the trap.
Once you start being aggressive, there’s no return. As Dale Carnegie rightly points it out:
You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.
So the only way to win an argument is to turn it into an open debate.
Did you notice the shift in objective here?
No longer is it about being more assertive, confident, or well-articulated than the other guy. It’s about changing your opposition’s minds.
How to do that? Here’s how not to do that. Don’t be extreme. Don’t antagonize your opposing party to prove your point.
Instead, assure them you are indeed willing to change your mind. All your opponent has to do is convince you with reasonable arguments.
Invite them to elaborate on their points further. It helps you in three ways:
➊ It instantly makes them put their guards down. You just promised them an easy win. Now, they will find their incentive to address your questions.
➋ When they are tricked into explaining their conclusions with reason, it (A) exposes their narrative holes & (B) tires them out.
➌ All the while, you can sit back, relax and listen to their reasoning so you can use their inconsistencies against them later on.
The goal isn’t to destroy or own them but to persuade and convince them.
Learn To Build Bridges Instead of Burning Them
Let me ask you something. What would be your natural reaction if someone starts yelling at you for no reason?
Fight or flight.
You will either get combative or get defensive.
Want to know what you won’t do? You won’t sit back and evaluate the soundness of their points with an unbiased point of view.
The very fact that the person is unnecessarily confronting will make you disagree with whatever point they are making.
The same goes for their oppositions and the audiences.
Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson fit the bill quite well here.
Despite being highly intellectual and skilled debtors, they manage to stir up controversies more than conversations.
They often get noticeably irritated while facing unfavorable questions and react with controlled hostility. Not only that, but sometimes they go so ballistic with their opinions that they come across as eccentric and disrespectful.
Their approach is more about debunking their opposition instead of winning them over.
As a result, even when they make valid arguments, their critics always find enough reasons to shut them out.
That’s not how you build bridges. That’s how you burn them.
I’ll be honest here. That’s a stupid move, especially when there is a far more efficient way to get it done.
Use Simple Gestures To Establish Good Will
Let’s get it clear. As I implied earlier, the default position of your opposition will always be not to want to listen to your arguments. And you can’t convince someone who won’t listen, can you?
So you have to build a bridge between yourself and your opposition.
However, the truth is, you can only do your part. It’s not up to you if your efforts get mirrored by your opposition or not.
But you can do the next best thing. You can encourage these people to do the same by establishing goodwill.
The most subtle and effective way of doing that is by injecting little kind gestures into the operation. Make no mistake. Being the social creatures we are, we crave approval and consideration.
And when someone does genuinely spoil us with such kindness, we cannot resist liking them back.
So you are better off replacing snarkiness with genuine kindness. For example:
⁃ Whenever your opponent makes good points, use terms like ‘that’s right,’ ‘yes, I see your point,’ or ‘good point!’
⁃ Smile and nod while listening to them. It shows the other guys that they have your full attention.
⁃ Complement their intent. The narrative will be like this: even if you disagree, you see that your opponent means well and is a genuinely wonderful human being.
By doing so, you subconsciously separate their identity from their opinions.
You make them believe they are good human beings, regardless of their beliefs. And if something goes wrong in their arguments, it’s not them, it’s their flawed conception.
That’s how you de-penalize the very concept of changing your mind when you are wrong.
Pick Your Fight
It’s true. In the end, an argument is, after all, a dispute. And at some point, you will have to start defying your opponents instead of pleasing them.
However, you can’t win all the battles, and it’s not always worth even trying it. That’s why learning to pick your fights is the deciding factor here.
Know when to concede and when to contest.
It’s not that complicated.
• When your opponent is missing the facts
• When your opponent is making an unreasonable argument
• When your opponent isn’t addressing your points well
• When your objection is emotional rather than factual or logical
• When your opponent makes a reasonable point
• When your opponent counters your arguments properly
In short, attack only when you have to attack. And even then, center it around the argument, not the person making it.
If you keep contesting everything, don’t back it up with a good argument, and resort to personal attacks, you will look foolish and spiteful.
Use Their Own Reasoning Against Them
Everything you have been doing till now
• inviting your opposition to change your mind by elaborating on their narrative
• building bridges and establishing goodwill
• respecting them when they make good points
All of it has been leading up to this. Your contestants have shown all their cards. Now it’s your turn to make a move. Now, you can break their reasoning bit by bit.
But how to do that without hurting their pride? How to do that without turning them against you?
Remember, a debate is less of a battle and more of a negotiation. And as Chris Voss expands in his book Never Split the Difference:
Negotiate in their world. Persuasion is not about how bright or smooth or forceful you are. It’s about the other party convincing themselves that the solution you want is their own idea. So don’t beat them with logic or brute force. Ask them questions that open paths to your goals. It’s not about you.
Again, if you look closely, you have done all the groundwork for this. You have opened your opponents up, separated their opinions from their identity, and appreciated them for their good points.
So why not ask the favor back?
After you destroy their points with reason, act helpless and genuinely confused. Then ask, “tell me, how am I supposed to make sense of that?”
Or, after making a rock solid argument, don’t try to rub your power on their face. Instead, act innocent and ask something like, “Am I being unreasonable here?”
It will give them the illusion of power when, in fact, you are in charge of the situation.
“How do you win?” Here’s a better one, “how do you define a win?” As I have mentioned before: the most satisfying win in a debate is to change your opponents’ minds.
And how do you do that?
You don’t. You can’t.
Only they can.
But it’s your job to help them do it. And the only way to do it is to care more about your opponent than your ego.
The best thing about this method is that it works wonderfully in front of an audience.
Even if your opponent refuses to change their mind and continues to act argumentative, you still will win in their eyes for being the more reasonable and sound-minded one.