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Sunday, August 5, 2012

How To Win an Argument and Change Someone’s Mind

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Our bedrock opinions and beliefs are hard to change.  We have so much time invested in them that we look for facts and reasons to support these adopted ideas, but reject things that might challenge or disprove them.  This process is called “confirmation bias,” and it affects us all.  Thus our positions harden over time and it is a rare thing for someone to change a fundamental belief.

If you want to win an argument with someone about his/her fundamental beliefs, recognize ahead of time that it’s not likely to happen, particularly without a well planned campaign.  Given the unlikelihood of success, consider first of all whether it’s smart to even try.  Having an argument you are not likely to win is just wheel-spinning, and will likely make the other person more intransigent.  Perhaps it would be best to drop the matter, live with the disagreement, or figure out ways to get around the problem without a confrontation.   Ask yourself “Is this fight worth winning?”  You have to pick your battles wisely, and trying to fight all possible battles leads to a life of misery.

But if you decide the matter must be addressed since the argument is unavoidable, I do have some advice for you.

1.  Pick the right place and time.  An argument clouded by alcohol, drugs, or dangerous weapons within reach is not likely to end well.  My father, when in college, was winning an argument about race relations when his opponent suddenly slugged him in the face.  That taught him an important lesson: the switch from talk to action can be sudden and unpleasant.  Don’t sit within arm’s reach of your interlocutor.

2.  Keep it civil.  Things to avoid: anger, ad hominem attacks, sarcasm, loud voices.  Instead take the path of a reasonable person striving hard to get at the truth. 

3.  Recognize the difficulty of the task.  Many of our cherished decisions were not consciously thought out by us, but instead were given to us by our parents, peers, or teachers at a very young age and haven’t been examined since. In a Time Magazine article last July, black author Touré related how at an event where he was the lecturer a white woman came up to him and quietly informed him “I’m a racist.”  She added, “My mind just goes places.  I can’t control it.  I know it’s wrong but I can’t help myself.  I say, Don’t think like that!  But it’s what people told me when I was younger.”  Touré found her confession fascinating, and he concluded:  
She had mental habits based on ideas implanted long ago that had taken root in her subconscious. She’s got various stereotypes and biases firmly lodged in her long-term memory where she stores things like how to ride a bike.
[You can see the full Time article at http://ideas.time.com/2012/04/19/inside-the-racist-mind/]

4.  Getting Started.  If this is going to be a major discussion schedule it at a propitious time. When the discussion begins make it clear that the two of you are about to discuss a matter on which you disagree.  Start by restating the other person’s position as fairly and favorably as you can delineate it (it’s a good idea to practice doing this ahead of time).  Demonstrate that you understand the center of that argument, and even what’s good about it, and highlight the parts that you even think are admirable.  But then say what bothers you about that position and why you would rethink both the premises and the ultimate conclusion were you the person you are talking to.

Jay Westbrook, my roommate in law school (and the smartest person I’ve ever known), taught me how to boil a disagreement down to its most basic point. When Jay and I argued, he would examine each element of the matter at hand, and say things like, “Is this the thing you disagree with?” No. Then put that aside. “How about this?” No. And so on until he reached the fundamental point at the heart of our dispute. When that was revealed, one of two things could happen: the participants could agree to disagree, or—more often—someone’s basic position was revealed to be ludicrous (too often mine), and a rethinking was in order. [For an example of Jay’s technique at work in my classroom, see the Related Post below entitled “The Socratic Dialogue in Law School.”]

5.  Talk it out.  Major disagreements aren’t usually settled in one meeting, so do what you can in the first encounter, then let things stew so both parties can reevaluate the situation.  It may be possible to compromise and reach a middle position both can live with (and ahead of time try and visualize what that compromise might look like).  Work to find common ground and then move on from there.  If nothing comes of the first meeting, don’t be discouraged.  There’s something honorable in “agreeing to disagree,” particularly if the issue need not be settled immediately by the two combatants.  If no one is going to budge, drop it and let things work themselves out as life proceeds. Sydney J. Harris once well said that The most important thing in an argument, next to being right, is to leave an escape hatch for your opponent, so that he can gracefully swing over to your side without too much apparent loss of face.”  That’s much better than storming out, yelling about the regrettable ancestry of the other person.

It’s rare that someone changes his/her mind in the middle of an argument and says “By golly, you’re right, and I’ve been mistaken all along!”  We all have a huge investment in our considered decisions, and confirmation bias has reinforced the fortress we’ve built up to protect our most cherished notions.  Instead, a change of mind is usually gradual.  Hearing a powerful argument that goes against an established notion but that can’t be dismissed or forgotten is something like a hit by a cannonball that slices a rent in a fortress wall.  Light (surprisingly) floods in, and the owner of the fortress must now deal with repairs to a battered wall.  When the damage is to a long-held conclusion the repair is not physical, but mental.  As the thinker nightly puts head to pillow the hole in the fortress comes looming up, right there in the bedroom, bothersome, denying sleep.  A new idea begins to form: perhaps—just perhaps—the opposing argument was right (!).  Then, like a bone being worried by a dog, the new idea is played with, explored, tried on for size.  The circumference of the hole increases.  Confirmation bias gives way to a new possibility: a willingness to look frankly at what’s right and what’s not.  Over the days that follow, from unexpected sources, conversations with friends, news articles, and/or comments on TV, come new barrages poking additional holes in the wall until—either slowly or suddenly—the wall finally gives way and the fortress surrenders.

6.  Be on the right side.  Perhaps I should have started with this final thought because without it being true none of the above matters: it’s no accomplishment to win an argument if you are on the wrong side of the issue at question, and therefore should have lost the argument but nonetheless somehow prevailed (because you’re smarter or more persuasive or more powerful, even though, sadly, ultimately wrong).  Ah, but exactly how do you know if you’re on the right or wrong side of an argument?  Try this: battle your usual preference for confirmation bias and do the opposite, which means looking for the weak parts of your own position, finding things that bother you and don’t seem right but that you usually avoid thinking about.  What are the best arguments against your position?  Could the others be right after all?  Then ask yourself whether, if you change your mind, how will that affect things?  Will your world collapse?  Is it possible there might be a significant upside to changing your position?  Believe it or not most people think it’s highly admirable to be willing to admit error and move on in life. 

7.  Conclusion.  It takes courage to try and change things, but during your life you will have opportunities to speak up and do your share.  You should recognize them when they arise, summon up the requisite courage, and take advantage of the opportunity to make a difference.  On your deathbed you don’t want to lie there rethinking your time on earth and muttering sadly “I wish I’d said something at that one key moment when it would’ve changed everything.”




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Related Posts:
 “The Socratic Dialogue in Law School,” January 31, 2010
“Superstitions,” March 21, 2010
"Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun," May 29, 2010
“The Deathbed Test,” July 27, 2010
"How To Impress People In a Conversation," October 1, 2010
“How To Make Ethical Decisions,” December 12, 2010
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life," January 17, 2011
“Life's Little (But Important) Rules,” April 23, 2011
“Picking Your Battles: The Meaning of Words,” July 3, 2011
“How To Be Perfect,” March 17, 2012
“My Battle with Sony To Get a Refund on a DVD Player,” July 16, 2015;
http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2015/07/my-battle-with-sony-to-get-refund-on.html
 
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-guide-to-best-of-my-blog.html


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