The Art of Winning An Argument

We spend a lot of our lives trying to convince or persuade others to our point of view. This is one of the reasons that Daniel Pink says that we’re all in sales:

Some of you, no doubt, are selling in the literal sense— convincing existing customers and fresh prospects to buy casualty insurance or consulting services or homemade pies at a farmers’ market. But all of you are likely spending more time than you realize selling in a broader sense—pitching colleagues, persuading funders, cajoling kids. Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.

Persuade or Convince?

But … how are we to change minds? What’s the best way to win an argument? Should we try to convince people, or should we try to persuade them?

In the difference between persuading and convincing, Seth Godin writes:

Marketers don’t convince. Engineers convince. Marketers persuade. Persuasion appeals to the emotions and to fear and to the imagination. Convincing requires a spreadsheet or some other rational device.

It’s much easier to persuade someone if they’re already convinced, if they already know the facts. But it’s impossible to change someone’s mind merely by convincing them of your point.

Sometimes people just disagree. And it’s here where we things start to get interesting.

“What a Man wishes, he will also believe”

— Demosthenes

At first, when people disagree with us we assume they are ignorant … that they lack information. So we try to convince them with information. If we show them that information and they still don’t change their mind, we just think they’re idiots.

In her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz explains:

… The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is that we just assume they are ignorant. You know, they don’t have access to the same information we do and when we generously share that information with them, they are going to see the light and come on over to our team.

When that doesn’t work. When it turns out those people have all the same information and they still don’t agree with us we move onto a second assumption. They’re idiots …

This approach of trying to convince people that we’re right and they’re wrong is flawed and rarely works. And it’s not because people are idiots, most of them are not.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

In many cases, we are overconfident about what we think because we’re familiar with the material. We think we know more than we actually do because it’s available to us. In short, we convince ourselves that we understand how something works when we don’t.

In a study about a decade ago, Yale professors Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil asked students to explain how simple things work, like a flushing toilet, a sewing machine, piano keys, a zipper, and a cylinder lock. It turns out, we’re not nearly as smart as we think.

When knowledge is put to the test, our familiarity with things leads to an (unwarranted) overconfidence about how they work.

Discovering that we don’t know as much as we think isn’t as easy as it may seem. Testing our own knowledge sounds like a lot of work. And most of the time others won’t test it either, however, when they do our knowledge doesn’t often match our confidence. And this is the beginning of how we start to show others or even ourselves that our view of the world might need updating.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

— Richard Feynman

The Era of Fake Knowledge

It’s never been easier to fake what you know: to both yourself and to others.

It’s the conservation of energy. Why put in the effort to learn something if we can get by most of the time without learning it? Why read the entire document when you can just skim the executive summary and get away with it?

Our intellectual laziness, however, comes with a cost. The more we coast the harder it gets to discern the difference between what we think we know and what we actually know. We end up fooling ourselves.

(There are two quick ways you can test your own understanding of something. The first is called the Feynman Technique, and the second is by doing the work required to hold an opinion.)

How to Win an Argument

Recent research shows how the illusion of knowledge might help you convince people they are wrong.

When asked to give reasons for their view, people remain as confident of their positions as they were before giving reasons. This is how we often argue with others. A tennis match of reasons served out and returned from one side to the other. Only no one is listening to the other or even considering they might be wrong. The way to really change minds and soften stances is to ask people to explain why they held views.

(Interestingly this very similar to the technique used by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss to soften people’s stances. He simply asks them how am I supposed to do that?)

We often can’t explain why we think what we do. And when asked to explain it we realize that we’re not as knowledgeable as we thought. That’s when we revise our confidence level down and become more open to the views of others.

If you want to win an argument, simply ask the person trying to convince you of something to explain how it would work.

Odds are they have not done the work required to hold an opinion. If they can explain why they are correct and how things would work, you’ll learn something. If they can’t you’ll soften their views, perhaps nudging them ever so softly toward your views.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that someone might do the same to you so make sure you can explain why you think what you do.