If you find yourself in a heated argument, you have fallen into a power struggle. Even if you convince them or win, you’ve polarized the situation and lost an opportunity to strengthen a relationship.
A spirited debate can move the action forward — if people engage for learning, instead of striving to be Right and make the other person Wrong. Arguing with anger creates defensiveness and opposition. It keeps you stuck, spinning your wheels, digging in deeper to justify yourself, and repeating ideas that they are ignoring anyway.
When you butt heads with others, everyone gets a headache. It’s futile and unnecessary. Here’s how to change the game:
1. It’s a puzzle. Treat the issue as a challenging puzzle to solve together. You may see the situation very differently, but suggest that you unite to find the best solution to a shared problem. To make the shift, say, “I know we disagree strongly, and we both want to come to the best solution. Would you be willing to think with me about how we can best address this together?”
2. Get curious. Say “Tell me more.” Ask good questions. Assume you have as much (or more) to learn than to teach. This requires setting aside your Certainty. You might say to yourself, “I’m pretty sure I’m right, but maybe I’m missing something.” Make space for the other person to contribute to you.
3. Listen, really. It is tempting to interrupt or give a perfunctory nod to someone before pushing your own view — but these are clumsy moves that generate heat, not light. Listening is free — and it can illuminate the situation. When you give them the opportunity to speak their mind, they will finish (eventually) and they will be more open to hearing you.
4. Argue well — with a hook. When it’s your turn to advocate, boldly state your views, provide reasoning, and offer evidence. Be brief, then finish with this hook: “I wonder which parts you agree with, and what do you see differently?” You are inviting them to connect with you and to challenge your views with their own reasoning and evidence. Since you are inviting challenge, it’s a game changer.
5. Slow down (just a little). When you slow your pace just 10%, you will create a whole lot of space for listening and reflection. Do the math: In a 10-minute discussion, this will cost you just 1 minute of additional clock time to transform the argument into a thoughtful dialogue. It’s worth it.