Recognizing When Winning is Not Possible (And When It Is!)

In this section we’re going to explore how the time, place, and people can make it impossible to truly win an argument. In these cases, the only way to win is not to argue or to change the conditions. We will discuss how to recognize when it is not possible to win and when it is.

Before continuing, please do at least one of the exercises.

Exercise-Recognizing When Not to Argue

The Problem: It is Not Always Possible to Win

One of the simplest reasons people don’t win arguments is that it is simply impossible. What makes winning an argument impossible?

  • Not the right time: There are many ways it can be a bad time to argue.
    • Someone could be too emotional
    • You could lack the information (e.g. arguing about a movie without having seen it)
    • You could only have 10 minutes allotted in a meeting for a question that will take at least an hour
  • Not the right place: Different kinds of arguments are appropriate for different places.
    • Your spouse may not want to argue in public
    • Your co-workers may be embarrassed to express their full view in front of senior management
    • Politicians may need to save face if the argument is happening in public
    • There could be loud noise
    • There could be other people interrupting
  • Not the right people: The people involved in the argument could make winning impossible.
    • Someone is acting out of bad faith. Fir example, they are trolling you.
    • People cannot even agree on the basic terms of the argument.
    • The history between the individuals will cloud the current situation.
  • Not the right format: Sometimes the way the argument is happening itself causes problems.
    • E-mails can miscommunicate emotions.
    • Arguing over the phone can make it hard to hear.
    • Arguing in person can make it harder to keep track of precise wording.

In most cases, these factors will not make it impossible to win an argument but will make it more difficult.

The Solution: Recognizing the Problems

When faced with these obstacles, you have two options:

  • Not argue: This is the simplest response, but it’s not always possible or desirable.
    1. At work you may be required to work with someone you find “impossible”.
    2. An answer may be required immediately under less than desirable circumstances.
    3. You write someone off as acting out of bad faith or you “Agree to disagree” when in fact you have misunderstood them.
  • Change the conditions: You may therefore be forced to or want to change the conditions of the argument.
    1. Plan ahead: Often there are things we can do well in advance to help arguments go well.
      1. at work, you can help ensure that:
        1. people have the right information ahead of time
        2. You have enough time
        3. The right people are in the room
      2. In politics, we can ensure that:
        1. Politicians sometimes have the privacy to have full and frank discussions
        2. We encourage debate formats that foster genuine dialogue
  • Personally, we can:
    1. Pay attention to people’s feelings and know when to approach
  1. In the moment: Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of preparation.
    1. Offer to switch venues
    2. Suggest a different time to discuss
  • Flag to people the gaps in information and offer to do more research before any further discussion.

BONUS RESOURCE!! Arguing With Difficult People

Some Questions to Think About

  • Is it important sometimes to argue with people even if we think they are mean? Why?
  • Are all questions up for debate?

Go to Section 3: Clarifying the Question.