Stop Trying to Win an Argument

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

When I was a kid, there was one thing I constantly heard from adults: “I’ll bet you plan to be a lawyer when you grow up.”

This was, of course, a polite way of observing that I argued incessantly. I argued with my brothers and my parents and my aunts and uncles and grandparents. I argued with teachers and babysitters. I argued with enemies and friends. And friends who, over the course of our arguing, became enemies.

I was blessed (?) with that natural-born arguer’s combination of stubbornness and insecurity. No subject was too trivial: My frenemy Brian Danforth and I once spent months arguing over whether the TV show Fantasy Island was filmed on an actual island. (Ah, the purity of arguments in the time before Google.)

Words were weapons. If I used them deftly enough, I would overpower the enemy and they would have to admit that they were wrong and I was right. I would win.

This addiction to arguing lasted into adulthood. I didn’t become a lawyer, but I did become a writer with, well, a lot of opinions. While that can be good on the page, I’ve come to realize that in my actual interactions with actual people, empathy works a lot better than anger.

I still cringe to remember, at a dinner party held in my honor by good friends a couple decades ago, arguing that women catcalled by construction workers “had the power to ignore them” and thus were only victims of harassment if they allowed themselves to be. I clung to this rancid bit of misogyny for hours, until, one by one, everyone at that dinner party began to hate me.

I wish I could tell you that experiences like this one cured my arguing habit. But really, it’s only after getting married and having children that I began to fully comprehend the toxic role that arguing has played in my life. At this point, I see myself as an arguer in recovery.

As such, I would like to offer some basic advice to those of you who (like me) still find yourselves lured into arguments that leave you and everyone around you miserable.

You can’t change someone else’s mind

Inside the heart of every inveterate arguer lives an eternal fantasy: that we can use rhetoric and logic and intransigence to force another person to see the world, or some small part of it, as we do. In fact, we can actually become addicted to the neurochemical high of “being right.”

But this compulsion to convince others is not just a fragile dream, it is a doomed one.

Trust me. Not once, in more than four decades of arguing, have I convinced another person that I am right and they are wrong. If they come around to my position, it’s because they decided to do so on their own.

Or because Fantasy Island really was filmed in Burbank, California. Just saying.

View others as teachers, not students

In every one of my most awful marital arguments, there comes a moment when I can sense myself bowing to an ancient reflex: I stop listening.

Instead, I merely wait for my wife to stop talking so I can explain to her why she is wrong and I am right. When arguers do this — when they assume the role of the infallible teacher — they foreclose the possibility of learning.

But what’s actually happening in our misunderstandings is usually pretty simple: My wife is trying to tell me that she was born into a different story than me, and that she therefore sees the world in a different way than I do. Because she has a female body, for example, she perceives the threat of walking past people who might “innocently” catcall her far more acutely than I do.

Research confirms that great listening prioritizes conversational back and forth. I find in my own life that when I stop viewing arguments as my chance to teach others, they become conversations that allow me to learn.

Defend your rights, not your honor

There are moments in everyone’s life when we feel the need to defend ourselves from behaviors or accusations that feel inconsiderate, unfair, or even cruel.

This effort too often devolves into an argument in which we pressure our antagonists to acknowledge their bad conduct. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see that I can set a boundary without attempting to extract a confession or an apology. (An apology extracted under duress likely won’t be a real one, anyway.)

Find the vulnerability behind the grievance

When I listen to my three children argue with each other — something I get to do every single day! — what I hear quite clearly is something I fought hard not to hear for years: pain.

Just the other day, Josie and Jude (ages 13 and 11, respectively) spent an hour tussling over whether the American colonists were right to launch a war against the British. This is settled history in most households. But Jude insisted, with increasing vehemence, that the British had gotten a bad rap.

What he was really upset about is the fact that I had given Josie a ticket to the musical Hamilton for Christmas. He felt overlooked. What kids are always saying, beneath every indignant declaration, is that they need more attention, more love, more reassurance.

Of course, it’s hard to admit to such delicate feelings, whether you’re six or 86. When we succumb to our “argument brain,” we are choosing to focus on the grievances that divide us rather than the vulnerabilities that unite us. This is why we wind up yelling at each other. Psychologists know that anger is a common response to vulnerability. Rage becomes the cloak behind which we can conceal how frightened or unloved we feel.

Choose doubt over assurance

Part of the reason we choose to argue so much, is because we’re surrounded by public figures — from media personalities to political leaders to CEOs — who are paid millions of dollars to sound absolutely sure of themselves.

The result is a climate of public discourse in which an expression of doubt or confusion registers as weak, and therefore shameful. And because we are conditioned to silence our doubt, and to broadcast our surety, we are perpetually frog-marching ourselves into arguments, when we should be having conservations. It’s easy to believe that being right matters more than being kind.

I know this conviction because I carried it for four decades. It brought me nothing but sorrow, because it sealed me off from the emotions most essential to human connection: empathy, humility, candor, curiosity.

I’m not claiming that I never argue anymore. My wife and kids would laugh for a week if I did. I still get into conflicts. But my goal in arguing has changed. I don’t want to win anymore. I want to understand why the conflict arose, and if there’s a way for the hurt feelings to be healed.

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