How to Win Arguments Without Making Enemies

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Arguments are inevitable in any human endeavor. Unfortunately, few people know how to argue effectively. As a result, many business meetings waste time and money in pointless squabbling.

When confronted with a contrary opinion, unsophisticated people tend attack the other person’s credibility (e.g., “Marketing doesn’t know crap about selling”). This never wins an argument; at best, it devolves into mutual name-calling.

The more sophisticated approach is to attempt to undercut the other person’s argument by pointing out its weaknesses. However, focusing on an argument’s weaknesses is setting up a strawman that makes another person’s position easy to argue against.

For example, suppose you’re having a budget discussion over where to spend marketing dollars. Joe wants to spend the money on a trade show while Jane wants to spend the money on a new website. Their argument might look like this:

  • Joe: “Our current website doesn’t create any sales leads, so why throw good money after bad?”
  • Jane: “At the last trade show, all we got was 20 business cards! What’s the point?”

By focusing on the weaknesses of each other’s positions, both Joe and Jane are creating and then attacking strawman characterizations. Neither will be convinced because they sense that the other person is being unfair. The most likely result is an unproductive squabble.

Winning an argument permanently would mean convincing the other person that his or her position is invalid and your position is correct. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, the best way to accomplish this is to create a “steelman” (rather than a strawman) version of the other person’s argument. You then argue against the steelmanbefore presenting your own position.

To create a steelman, you put yourself in the shoes of the other person and muster from your own imagination the strongest arguments in favor of that position. This completely disarms the other person, if only because it’s so unexpected. Example:

  • Jane: “Trade shows can create a lot of value for our company. In addition to generating sales leads, they give our salespeople and engineers to the opportunity to bond with customers. Trade shows are also good public relations; we sometimes get press coverage when we attend and, if we missed an important show, people might think that we’re in financial trouble. Joe, have I fairly represented your case?”
  • Joe: “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

By correctly and positively characterizing Joe’s position, Jane has increased her credibility. She’s also gone through a mental exercise that will allow her to more objectively understand Joe’s position. She may even have discovered that Joe’s idea is better than hers!

But let’s suppose that Jane still believes her position is correct. By creating a steelman, she has surfaced all the points that she’ll need to argue against to convince Joe that he’s wrong. That might look like this:

  • Joe: “So, we’re in agreement? We’re doing the trade show?”
  • Jane: “Not so fast. This trade show isn’t widely covered by the press; most of the publicity we’ve gotten in the past was from our own press release that we were attending. Several of our competitors didn’t show up at this show last year, so it’s unlikely that anyone would think it strange if we followed suit. In three months, we’re having our annual user group meeting, which will provide ample opportunity to meet-and-greet customers. As for sales leads, most of the attendees of this trade show are competitors rather than prospects, which is probably why we’ve not gotten many usable sales leads in the past. As such, I’m not sure that the expense justifies the benefits.”

Jane has effectively neutralized anything that Joe might say at this point, but without attacking Joe or unfairly characterizing his position. This leaves the field free for Jane to present her own argument, like so:

  • Jane: “By contrast, a new website would create value for our company in the following ways …”

Chance are that Jane’s arguments will win, especially if she presents her own steelman, thereby making it difficult for Joe to create a strawman.

But what if Joe takes the same approach as Jane and himself creates (and attacks) a steelman version of Jane’s position? So much the better for everyone involved and for the company, too.

Rather than squabbling and name-calling, Jane and Joe are now discussing the real issues, with both fully understanding the other’s position. They’re far more likely to reach agreement on the wisest way to spend the marketing budget. And that’s win-win.