9 Secret Rules of Winning Arguments
Nov 25, 2022
Why Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Use the 9 Secret Rules of Winning Arguments
This is a story about emotional intelligence and winning arguments. If you find it convincing, I hope you'll check out my free ebook, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, which you can download here.
Let's start by ensuring we're on the same page regarding the definitions of three key terms. Get these right, and you're halfway there.
For our purposes, a winning argument is one from which you emerge in a position that makes it more likely you will achieve your ultimate goals than you were before.
It often does not mean convincing the other side that you are right and they are wrong. How often does that happen, anyway?
In fact, when we talk about "winning arguments," don't think of "winning" as a verb; think of it as an adjective. You'll wind up happier.
Next, "emotional intelligence."
Emotional intelligence in this context is a practiced awareness of how emotions affect your communication and organizational efforts, along with thinking through how to leverage emotions (both yours and other people's) to make your points clearer and more relatable and to become more persuasive.
Emotional intelligence often leads people to treat others more nicely and to develop empathy for them. But these benefits are tangential positives. They are not the core definition or goal.
Arguments, as we examine them here, are communications designed to advance common understanding, resolve disputes, or achieve goals. They have more in common with negotiating than they do with fighting.
The business contexts could be infinite: a dispute with a competitor, an application to a government regulator, a difficult conversation with an employee; the list goes on.
Not every negotiation is an argument, but every argument involves some degree of negotiation.
If you look for advice on how to handle these challenges with emotional intelligence, you'll more quickly find discussion of them in the context of romantic or family relationships than business relationships. Maybe that's because we quite reasonably value those relationships more. Good for us, frankly.
But, these rules are also applicable in business contexts. Since so many people don't learn them, it's almost as if they're secrets hiding in plain sight, offering big advantages to those who do use them.
With that in mind, I set out to boil down some of the most common advice that therapists and counselors repeatedly give in terms of "how to argue with your spouse," or "fighting fair in relationships." Then, I ran it all by a trio of counselors and psychotherapists, including those teaching conflict management on the collegiate level, to adapt them to rules that business leaders and business owners can use.
Here are the 9 no-longer-secret rules of winning arguments that emerged.
Rule #1: Before you start arguing, decide how you want it to end.
I hope you're going to read all the way to the end of this article, but this rule is by far the most important. It's non-negotiable, even while some of the others might involve a balancing act.
In short, when it comes to arguments, know what you want to get out of them before you get into them.
Keep in mind: You might have a long-term desired outcome ("I want this employee to succeed, help my business grow, and be happy"), and you also might have a short-term desired outcome ("I want to figure out why this employee has had a hard time meeting expectations lately.")
But like so many things in life, people often fail miserably here because they haven't taken the time to think deeply about what success would look like. (Put differently: Follow the Z-Y-X Rule.)
Rule #2: Think how you can make it end well for the other side.
There are at least two parties in any argument: you and the other side.
The other side should practice Rule #1 here, just as I'm advising you to. Sometimes they will; sometimes they won't. But even if they break that cardinal rule, you can do a bit of it for them. You can think through how you can get what you want, while also letting the other side get at least some of what they want, too.
At the very least, you can endeavor to ensure that they know you've listened to them, and they've been able to have their say--and perhaps "save face" to some degree.
"Ever seen two kangaroos fighting?" commented Jan Harrell, a clinical psychologist for 40 years who taught at UCLA and Southern Oregon University. "It's hysterical. They throw their little heads back, and they throw their paws out. That's how I see a lot of people arguing. They're fighting to be heard. Fighting to be seen. You can gain a lot by being the one who acknowledges the other person's reality."
Rule #3: Control the circumstances.
There are three main circumstances you want to control, or at least be aware of: time, place, and manner of your debate.
When are you talking? How are you talking? Who's initiating the call or traveling to the other person's location? Is this all over email or text? Are other people listening in?
These are all "negotiations before the negotiation," so to speak. And, while you don't necessarily have to have "your way or the highway," pay attention.
If you're a boss who needs to have a heart-to-heart with an employee, and yet that employee keeps putting you, off or insisting that you accommodate their schedule, that tells you something right there.
Important final point: Of all the circumstances, time stands out. Set end times. Maybe you stick with them during the argument or change them, but they're a great tool to have brought with you.
Rule #4: Control the emotions.
Control your emotions, of course. That doesn't mean be emotionless; it means being aware of how you feel and how those feelings might affect what you say and do--for better and for worse.
But also, keep an eye on the other person's emotions.
This is also where it pays to remember that your goal is not always to make the other person feel as comfortable as possible. Be decent, of course, but sometimes anxiety or excitement on the other side of a table can make a good resolution more likely for you.
"When you're cognitively hyper-aroused, when you have a racing heartbeat, racing thoughts, people around you can pick up on this," said Dr. Gillian O'Shea Brown, a psychotherapist who specializes in complex relational trauma and teaches at New York University. "Being calm and clear-headed--this is a primer for any kind of effective communication."
Rule #5: Do not skip the small talk.
Your small talk might be brief, but it's nevertheless important. It's an early opportunity to find common ground.
Maybe you're arguing with a vendor who hasn't lived up to expectations. Maybe you're having a difficult conversation with an employee who you don't think is going to be a great fit, long-term.
Those conversations can be fraught, so starting with something simple like: "I know things have been hard, but I appreciate you taking the time to talk things through, and I hope we can reach an accommodation," can improve the tone.
Important caveat: Don't open with a question, even something as seemingly innocuous as "How are things?"
Use declarations like the one above. Otherwise, you're starting out with either an invitation to get off track, or else asking something you don't really want to hear the answer to. Either way, you risk sending an unintentional message.
Rule #6: Adjust (not react) in real time.
The important thing here is to keep in mind, at least for our purposes, there is a difference between adjusting and reacting.
Let's use an example. Imagine that your ultimate goal is to help an employee become more effective at work, and you walk in thinking that his or her difficulty probably stems from not having enough flexibility.
But during the conversation, the employee tells you that the real problem is that she doesn't get enough clear direction or feedback.
You could react to that, emotionally: "I'm a very good boss, and I give very clear directions and feedback!
"Or you could adjust your response, in a less emotional way: "O.K. Maybe it would help if we set up weekly check-ins like this to make sure you know what's expected."
All other things being equal, which reaction do you think is more likely to lead to your stated goal of having an effective employee?
Rule #7: Listen -- and look as if you're listening.
Listening is harder than people like to give it credit for. It's not just being quiet or being able to parrot back what someone has said. It's really a form of communication.
Perception is important. Even if you're a pro at multitasking, think through what it looks like if you check your phone five times during the discussion, or if your assistant interrupts you twice to ask you questions.
There are times when it's OK to be distracted. Maybe you decided it was tactically wise to agree to an employee's request that you have your discussion as soon as possible, which happens to mean doing it via phone while you're driving. In that case, I want your attention on the road.
Or else, there might also be times when you want to signal clearly that the dispute you're arguing about really is not that important to you. If the only time you'll allocate for a discussion is 15 minutes via cell phone during a layover in a noisy airport, that sends a message. Just make sure you send that message intentionally.
Rule #8: If you interrupt, do so strategically.
You're the boss, so it's likely up to you to make sure you cover the things you want to cover.
That means that you want to listen actively and strive for the other person to feel heard. But it doesn't mean you have to endure a filibuster, or allow the conversation to go completely off track.
"Think about how you strategically interrupt," suggested O'Shea Brown. "Maybe, 'I hear you have a lot to say in regard to your feelings. We both want a solution, so let's pivot toward solutions.' Your tone is everything. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, they might not remember what you said, and they might not remember what you did, but they'll remember how you made them feel."
Rule #9: Seek to understand
It's good that we end on this point, because unless you're planning to try to steamroll over the other side -- in which case, why bother with the argument? -- understanding will be key to guiding things toward where your ultimate goals are more likely.
Tactically speaking: Ask open-ended questions, and even repeat back to the other person some of what they say. You want to know where they're coming from so that you can better articulate your own points, and improve the odds of emerging closer to your goals.
"That's important because you need to understand where the other person is coming from to present a compelling argument," said Miriam Bowers-Abbott, who teaches communication and conflict management at Mount Carmel College of Nursing in Ohio. "If you don't know what their priorities are, it's hard to convince them."