8 Steps for Winning an Argument

There’s a disturbing conversation happening in our society.

People are uncomfortable with the opinions expressed by others and the debates they spark. In reaction, people are asking, “What is the point in debating? No one is winning any arguments. You’re not going to change someone’s opinion.” 

There’s even been a small movement on social media asking friends to post pictures of art and puppies to drown out the polarizing (usually, political) posts from your feed. And while I love art and puppies just as much as the next person…

Please do not be guilted into believing that silence is better than debate.

When we stay silent about important issues, we perpetuate a superficial culture. This is why we know more about the Kardashians than we know about laws being passed.

A silent culture is a scary culture.

Disagreements can be opportunities to connect with someone; not necessarily to agree with them.

Now, I won’t tell you what to do with your social media feeds. I’m not the online chick; I’m the IRL chick. I’m more interested in empowering you to have interesting, engaging, and powerful debates with your friends. 

Having differing opinions and expressing them is not the problem. The real problem is that we don’t know HOW to debate or disagree. A healthy debate is possible as long as you know a few rules for success.

Winning an Argument

When I see posts of people saying, “What’s the point in debating? You won’t change other people’s minds.” I realize that people are approaching debates from the wrong angle.

The point of debating isn’t to change someone’s mind. If you start with that goal, you’ve already lost.

The point of a disagreement is twofold:

  1. to express disagreement
  2. to better understand your own opinions.

Let’s start with the first.

Yes, the first point of a disagreement is exactly that – to disagree. Disagreements are expression. You should be willing to express yourself and the person with you should feel free to do the same.

Without a disagreement, there is no conversation. Without conversation, there is no chance for understanding.

The second value of a healthy debate is that 
it provides an opportunity for you to better understand your own opinions. By expressing your opinions out loud – especially to someone with an opposing viewpoint – you are challenged to better explain your reasoning and conclusions.

I experience a similar phenomenon with my writing. I am inspired to write about many topics but rarely does the finished product end up looking how I first envisioned it. Through the writing process, I am forced to have clarity in my thinking process. Sometimes my thoughts become better as they are forged through the written word. Other times I abandon a concept because I realize I really don’t have enough substance to turn it into anything substantial. It was just a nice idea.

If anything, a debate is more about challenging yourself than it is about challenging someone else.

Free Speech Isn’t the Problem. Active Listening Is. 

It’s basic Golden Rule stuff.

If you want to be listened to, you must be willing to listen.

The reason why debates turn ugly is that people stop listening.

Even if you don’t like someone’s opinion and even if that opinion angers you, you must give them the same courtesy that you would want from them.


Interruptions are the lowest of the low. When you interrupt someone, you are saying, “I am more important than you. My opinion and my voice deserve more respect than you and yours. I don’t care about you or your thoughts.”

When you interrupt, you lose the high ground. 

If you interrupt, you have paved the way for them to interrupt you. When this happens, it is no longer a debate; it is a fight for airtime.

On the other hand, when you maintain your composure and listen without interrupting if the other person tries to interrupt you, you can assertively and calmly say, “I let you finish your thought without interrupting. Please extend the same courtesy and respect to allow me to finish mine.”

I’ve been in plenty of disagreements where this one sentence diffuses any building negative energy. This evens the playing field and a healthy discourse can continue.

Maintain Composure

We are mimicking mammals. Our mirror neurons wire us to mirror what we see. This often helps us create rapport with people. When we feel in sync with someone, we are actually in sync with them. Body posture is the same, tone is the same, speaking pace is the same. And when you are intimately in sync, breathing is the same. It is a very useful trait….until it isn’t.

When in a debate, you must be what you want to see. 

If you want a respectful, even toned, calm discussion, then you must embody respect, speak in an even tone, and stay calm. If you elevate your demeanor, then the other person’s mirror neurons will kick in. They will match the volume and emotion, and then they will ante up and escalate.

Conversely, they might initiate the escalation by putting on more threatening postures and tone. Maintain the stronger frame here.

Your biology will try to work against you, telling you, “Show this guy what you’re really made of! Don’t back down!” You will feel compelled to stiffen up, square up, and show your grit.

Don’t! There is no good ending with that. You will decline what was a healthy debate and threaten what is or could have been a successful relationship. It’s not worth it.

Police officers are trained to maintain a calm, assertive composure when arriving on a scene. Usually, when they show up, emotions are already running high. If an officer approaches trying to out-machismo everyone else, people get hurt.

Your best weapon is actually conversational jiu-jitsu. You need your “opponent” to realize that their force isn’t working. They will tucker themselves out (quicker than you think) and then match your calmer energy.

That’s being a real alpha.

Argue the Point, Not the Person

This is a BIG one! Name calling is out!

Once you resort to any form of name-calling, you lost the argument.

It is over. You lose.

You are winning no points by using a disparaging phrase towards the person you are debating. You have killed any chance for a successful or healthy interaction.

When you shift your argument away from the topic and point it towards the person, the person’s only option is to defend themselves.

And most people defend by attacking. Now you are in a fight, not a debate.

Also, no name calling includes veiled name-calling. Such as, “Anyone who thinks like that is an idiot.” You didn’t directly call the other person an idiot, but you basically did. This puts them on a defensive attack just as much as if you were to say, “You’re a fucking moron.” So, no name calling of the person in front of you or the group of people who share similar views as the person in front of you.

Now, let’s just say you accidentally let a disparaging term slip. What do you do?

Apologize. Right away.

Say, “I’m sorry. That’s not fair. I didn’t mean that. I really want to discuss this issue with you.”

Debating doesn’t equal being right about everything. If you make a misstep, say you’re sorry respectfully.

On the other hand, what happens if the other person slings out a negative label or two? Reference our previous rule about staying calm and assertive.

In a cool tone, say, “I’m really enjoying talking with you about this, but I really would like to keep it civil. I promise not to call you any nasty names and I’d appreciate it if you can do the same.”

If they continue to do so and not respect your wishes, end the conversation. There is no point if things have sunken to that level. Just politely and calmly say, “I’d really love to continue discussing this. I’m learning a lot from you and it’s helping me get more clarity around my own ideas. But, I really can’t continue if I feel like I’m being attacked. It’s starting to feel like a toxic conversation, so perhaps we can switch gears and just put a button on this talk for today.”

Respectful. To both them and yourself.

Stay on Topic

This is tricky because it’s so easy to slip up here.

A true debate is about an issue. One topic.

When we feel like we are losing our ground on one subject it’s common to shift things to another subject. Avoid this. You’ll only muddy the waters and the two of you will be talking in circles.

If you notice that things have veered off course, politely say, “I appreciate what you just said, but I feel like we’ve strayed away from what we originally were talking about and I’d love to hear more of your perspective on that.”

Acknowledge and Appreciate

Appreciation is a recurring theme in all influential conversations. Acknowledgment and appreciation are signs of power, poise, and persuasiveness.

By acknowledging someone else’s point – “I hear what you’re saying.” – you are not saying that you agree with them. You are saying that you are openly listening to their point of view.

If you notice that someone continues to repeat themselves, it is likely because they don’t feel heard. If you would like to end their loop, repeat back what they have said, just say it in your own words. Again, this doesn’t mean you agree; it means you’ve listened.

Find opportunities to appreciate the other person and, yes, their point of view. They may not have come to the same conclusions as you, but I’m sure that you can appreciate some aspect of their argument – like how it is with the best of intentions or reflects their values. Ultimately, this is true of everyone. We all create opinions and act with the best of intentions that reflects our values. Appreciate that and continue to share your own views.

Oh, yeah. And it’s TOTALLY ok to agree with someone during a debate! (Crazy right?!) You can absolutely agree with one aspect of someone’s argument. This can only improve rapport and increase your chances of finding some common ground.

Even bitter rivals can find moments to agree with one another, as this clip shows. (skip to 2:30)

Ask Questions

If you can get good at this, you win at life.

Instead of approaching a debate with a series of statements, ask more questions. Get Socratic up in here!

By asking questions, you accomplish three things.

First, you avoid a boxing style debate. Instead of exchanging blows, you are volleying a thought.

Second, questions are less threatening and more engaging. With questions, it is less of a debate and more of a guided monologue. You aren’t trying to prove your point. You are trying to get them to teach theirs. Through that process, you could potentially achieve the third benefit. You likely won’t change their mind, but you very well could get them to see a chink in their thought process, which could get them to at least question one aspect of their opinion.

That is a win by anyone’s standards. A question is the first step to expanding a mind. 

If that happens, you deserve some chocolate.


Sure there are going to be more questions from Stephen because he is the host of the talk show, but this still exemplifies a great way to ask questions instead of making statements. PLUS, Stephen follows one of our previous rules for winning an argument: acknowledge and appreciate.

End in a Hug


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