There’s no such thing as winning an argument

Yes, you did read that correctly! It’s never really a win/lose outcome – it’s actually either a win-win or lose…

Why… you ask? Because the minute you view any kind of disagreement, debate or difference of opinion in the terms of winning or losing – you’ve already lost!

ArgumentHopefully you’ll be familiar with the expression ‘you may have won the battle, but you haven’t won the war’. Well that kind of applies here. You may have won the argument, and prevailed in ensuring that your point of view came out on top, but at the same time you unwittingly damaged the relationship – hence you really lost overall. This applies most strongly in any situation where the relationship is ongoing – such as family, your relationship partner, friends, work colleagues, boss/direct reports. In other words, pretty much most personal or professional contexts.

What many people don’t realise, or easily forget, is that relationships are always primary if you want to get on in life and business. Read through the reams of leadership and team research and literature available, or similar material about romantic relationships/marriages and they’ll all point to the fact that maintaining strong positive relationships is a core fundamental element of success in those areas. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, when you ‘win’ an argument you often damage the relationship to a greater or lesser extent at the same time.

In their extensive research on relationships, the Gottman Institute in Seattle discovered that the most successful relationships are based on a ratio of positive to negative interactions of 5:1 or higher. They also found that the frequency and intensity of negative interactions (arguments/fights) was one of the strongest predictors of divorce. Now whilst this research has been conducted on marriages and romantic relationships, it’s findings are easily transferable to other contexts.

The bottom line is, in the long term, the relationship should always come before trying to make sure your idea or point of view comes out on top – even if you don’t like the other person, care what they think of you, or view that relationship as important! (More on how to do that in a minute).
Business Disagreement
Really? I hear you say. Why? And what about situations where you’re not in some type of ongoing relationship? Well in my opinion, it’s always best to avoid creating enemies, or people who don’t have good things to say about you  – because you never know who someone is, or who they know. We’ve all heard the expression ‘it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know’ and there’s a lot of truth in that. We’ve also all heard stories about someone who got one over on someone else (who may well have deserved it), only to turn up at a job interview some time later to find that person is the interviewer, or go to meet their new girlfriend/boyfriend’s parents and discover that it was their Mum/Dad, or some similar tale… you never really know who’s who, or knows who, so my golden rule of thumb is, “if you can’t leave a positive impression or end with a win-win, at least leave on a neutral footing”.

So how should you approach these situations then, if it’s not about winning?

Well it requires both a change in attitude and a change in approach. It’s not about becoming a ‘kiss-ass’ or sucking up to people, but it does mean shifting your attitude towards creating an outcome that works for both parties, often known as a win-win, or at worst finishing on a neutral note and agreeing to disagree. Which also requires that you give more consideration to the other persons point of view, rather than just dismissing it.

It’s really about shifting your emphasis towards having the conversation be an ‘exploration’. You have to let go of ‘being right’ or ‘winning’ and become open to listening to and hearing the other person(s) point of view. You both hold on to everything you know to be true and believe, and at the same time remain engaged open to influence. The conversation then becomes a creative exploration searching for new meaning and mutually beneficial outcomes. The simplest way this is to visualise this is to imagine playing a game of ‘Trump’ with playing cards. Instead of each player placing their card down on top of the other person’s and trying to trump them with each turn of a card and win the game, it’s more like placing all the cards side by side and then choosing the winning cards at the end of the game – together.

This might sound overly simplistic, but please don’t underestimate it’s power, or how easy it is to adopt if it’s not already your natural style when you disagree with someone or a conversation starts to get heated. The simplest and most effective tool I know to achieve this is a tool called ‘Yes, And…’ – it involves beginning your contribution to the discussion with genuine acknowledgement of what the other person has just contributed. That doesn’t mean agreeing with them, unless of course you do. The easiest way to get started with this is by completing the sentence ‘What I like about that is…’ (find something, anything, and mean it!). Then eradicating the word ‘but’ from your vocabulary and replacing it with the word ‘and’ – then adding whatever you have to say next. This keeps the line of communication open, whereas but tends to shut it down. It may sound all too simple I know, but this little tool just helped one of my clients get an almost impossible project completed on time and bag himself a significant promotion and 5 figure pay-rise to go with it! So as I said, don’t underestimate it’s power to create “win-win’s” and influence others.

Most of us rarely pay attention to others and their opinions if they’re not willing to listen to ours, so don’t forget it goes both ways… and nobody really wins an argument…

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  • casual observer

    very good advice especially on keeping the conversation going and refraining from dismissing the other person’s point of view which only really comes from a contemptuous attitude toward those considered inferior (ignorance isn’t something you can correct by force, and most people will hate you for trying)

    I believe the first step is addressing that hate that comes out when an argument ensues so you can sense it in advance and tell yourself “okay, I have to find some common ground so this person can see where we are” rather than trying to shift the person’s perspective by making a forceful point which they won’t see as you intended (and likely be dissuaded by the forceful tone and feel like they’re being scolded)

    by doing this you can turn a disagreement into an ongoing debate and actually help the person over time rather than stone-wall them with an obstacle and pretty much assume a superior role in the relationship

    (oh, and, you’ve got a few extra apostrophes: remember that ‘its’ is an exception to the possessive where you don’t need an apostrophe)