How to Argue

How to Argue

“I emailed the whole team to be here Saturday morning,” Sandra, the project manager, told her manager.

“Not the contractors,” her boss said.

“Yes, contractors too,” Sandra said.

“Why?”

“I want everyone here. This is a big test we’re running!”

“We don’t need the contractors. This project is overspent already,” the boss said.

“If we waste time trying to find contractors on Saturday because they’re not here to fix a problem with something they’re the expert in, it’ll get expensive,” Sandra argued.

“Not possible. You always plan for the worst. Have you ever noticed that?” the boss said.

Ignoring his comment, Sandra simply said, “It’ll waste time if we have to chase them down on Saturday.”

“Not much. And not time we’re paying for by the hour.”

“I want this test to proceed as quickly as possible. We have to be done by Sunday morning, and I don’t want to risk delays. I think risk mitigation is my call,” Sandra asserted.

“Your assessment of risk is too cautious,” the boss observed.

“I don’t think so. Besides,” she added, “I’ve already told them to be here.”

“Well, un-tell them,” the boss said.

Sandra said no more, knowing it was pointless to continue to argue.

I’ll un-tell them, she muttered to herself, but I’m right. We need them here.

When was the last time someone changed your mind about something by arguing you into their way of thinking?

I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t remember the last time that happened. Arguing rarely changes minds. In the case of Sandra and her boss, it changed the action – the contractors would be uninvited from weekend work – but it didn’t change Sandra’s mind. She left the conversation annoyed and unconvinced.

There are probably at least several reasons arguing doesn’t change minds. Let’s take a look at a few of them and what to do about each of them when you’re heading into – or suddenly in the middle of – an argument yourself.

Reason #1 – We hate to lose.

I mean, really, it’s that simple. Have you ever wanted to lose out to someone else’s opinions and facts? Of course not. No one does.

But let’s go a little deeper. Why is it we so hate to lose? Because our reputation is at stake! It’s not just an everyday ordinary competitive urge. We see losing an argument as a blow to our credibility, even if it’s just in front of the one person we’re arguing with. In a profession such as engineering that prides itself on knowledge and expertise, who wants to suffer a blow to their credibility?

Think about this from the viewpoint of the person you’re arguing with. You treasure your reputation as a credible authority. So do they. Just as much. They’re just as committed to being seen in a positive light as you are. Even if they come to believe you’re right, or they decide to capitulate, ultimately they won’t want to because of this reputation thing.

And that is how stalemates and grudges are born.

You can improve your arguing technique when you recognize this fact of human nature in your opponent. Back off a little, especially if your facts are inarguably accurate, and remember that whoever’s on the other side of your argument may indeed believe you’re correct but is also really wanting to look good, no matter what. You can help them do that by acknowledging their reasoning and perspective. Some things to say:

“I can see why you would think that.”

“I started out seeing it just as you do, but then I considered this….”

“Your reasons make total sense – until you take this into account, and this is what makes the difference, I think.”

Reason #2 – Anger is unpersuasive.

How do you react when someone is angry at you? Maybe you get angry back at them. Maybe you cower or get anxious. Maybe you leave the room or check out mentally. But no matter what your reaction in the moment, how likely is it that anger will persuade you to change your mind? You might change your actions, just to get the person to stop being mad, but not your mind. If anything, someone being mad at us often makes us hold on to our position even more tightly.

You can improve your ability to argue a point by not getting angry at the person you’re arguing with. If you want to win them over, don’t get mad. Just because you’re arguing doesn’t mean you have to be angry. We think they go together, arguing and anger, but they don’t have to. There’s no requirement that you must be angry in order to argue your point.

In our scenario between Sandra the project manager and her boss, it’s entirely possible for Sandra to make the case that the contractors should work the weekend without getting upset about it. It may be normal to get annoyed, but it’s not required. You can still make the case without escalating into a snit.

One thing to remember: there’s a difference between suppressing anger and not having it. If you stuff your annoyance down, it won’t be long before it comes roaring back. But if your analytical skills tell you that anger is useless, and you believe it, try letting go altogether of your anger (and all its friends – frustration, impatience, irritation, annoyance, exasperation) and see if you’re not better able to get your point across.

Reason #3 – We naturally skew to a “myside bias.”

I’m borrowing that phrase from the book The Enigma of Reason by cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. You may have heard this idea as “confirmation bias.” Basically it means that we tend to believe evidence and information that support what we believe and reject what does not. Even when we’re presented with rational, even irrefutable, evidence that we’re wrong, we often choose to discount it. The myside bias is not pursuing reason; it’s pursuing support for our position.

In our earlier scenario, Sandra the project manager might look to the Project Management Institute for data supporting her position that assuming the worst is a responsible thing for a project manager to do. Meanwhile, her boss might present her with half a dozen financial scenarios demonstrating that it’s cheaper for the project to chase down contractors as needed rather than have them sitting around on hand. Sandra’s “myside bias” would make her shoot holes in the boss’s financial analysis while clinging to her belief that risk mitigation at all costs is the better choice.

Mercier and Sperber have a fascinating explanation for this phenomenon. They say the ability to reason is something we’ve learned over a long time, an ability that’s evolved, and it supports us living in cooperative groups, which is something humans do far more so than animals. So although we think of reason as something developed to be rational and objectively analytical, instead it’s supposed to help us live in groups. If our ancestors were in a group, they were always on the lookout for people who weren’t doing their fair share. This led to arguments, and winning (not reason) was the goal. And that, say the cognitive scientists, is how the myside bias came to be.

Is it useful to know why we angle to our own bias? Maybe not. But it is useful to remember is that we all do it, and when you’re arguing with someone, they’re probably doing it. It isn’t that they’re incapable of seeing things clearly. They’d probably do a clear, reasoned job of poking holes in someone else’s thinking. Instead, it’s that they, like many of us, are blind to our own bias.

To improve your ability to argue, make sure you’re not mybias-ing. Also, accept that this bit of human behavior is normal and, once you’ve accepted it (really accepted it, not just said “there he goes again”), you might try pointing it out. That would depend on how well you know the person you’re arguing with. Something to say:

“It’s normal for us to try to support our own view. I’m asking you to take an objective look at what I’m proposing. Can we do that?”

Of course it’s also a good idea to gather your thoughts before you speak, have your information organized, and avoid saying things that are derogatory. That’s more or less standard “how to argue” advice. But beyond those basics, it’s good to remember the nuances of the human psyche: that we resist anger, cling to our own position, and cherish our reputation. That’s where the trouble comes in during disagreements.

I hope your disagreements are few. But when one arises, I hope you’re now better prepared for it.


Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.

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