How to Win A Debate

How to Win A Debate

Chloe Seaman
October 10, 2016

Have the recent presidential debates caused debates of your own at home or work? There’s no doubt this year’s election is causing heated friction among some voters. Though it may feel like a rise in arguments is a temporary happening because of the presidential election, arguments and debates are an inevitable part of our lives. If you want to learn how to win an argument once and for all, then keep reading.

First, let’s identify why you’re arguing. There are three common reasons:

  1. You want to influence the other person.

  2. You don’t know how you got into an argument in the first place, but once you engage, you’re emotionally invested in winning it.

  3. You just want to prove the other person wrong.

Logically, if you want to influence someone, prove them wrong, or “just win”, having them hate you as a side effect, won’t really feel like winning the argument. However, arguments tend to invite heated emotions that, in effect, cause more (or perpetuating) arguments.

The best advice we’ve seen on persuasion comes from FBI hostage negotiation techniques. In a situation as dire as negotiating the release of a hostage, you know the techniques here must be tried and tested. The best part is, these tactics also work for everyday arguments – big or small.

There are five steps the experts use to change someone’s mind (and therefore win the argument):

  1. Active listening. What everyone wants in an argument is to feel like they have been heard. If you give your opponent acknowledgement, it’s more likely the conversation will go in the direction you want it. FBI negotiator, Chris Voss explains that by summarizing the perspective of your opponent, you can get them to say, “That’s right.” Essentially you are telling them their perspective from their point of view and asking them to confirm. Doing this, as Voss says, can move the conversation forward in “ridiculously phenomenal ways.” When someone feels they’ve truly been heard, they’re more likely to respect and listen to your own perspective.

  2. Empathy. You need to understand what is influencing your opponent. Where their perspective is coming from indicates how you can respond to them. Feel what they feel even if you don’t agree. Seeing it from their perspective will also help keep everyone’s emotions in control.

  3. Rapport. After you feel empathy for the other side, you can begin to build trust. When your opponent feels you understand them, they can begin to feel it back. If you’re the first one to show empathy, you’re likely leading the argument into the conversation you want it to be. Sometimes it’s not about “winning”, but rather coming to a mutual agreement.

  4. Influence. Empathy builds rapport and rapport builds trust. If you’ve achieved these first three steps, you’re now in the position of having your opponent trust you. This is important because if you can make your opponent trust you, they’re more likely to trust your perspective.

  5. Behavioral change. Emotions have a lot of power to change someone’s mind. Following these steps to steer the argument where you want to take it makes you the champ. Even if you decide to disagree, at least you’ve made that conclusion happen through a calm and rational conversation, where hopefully both sides are left mutually respected. Sometimes that is winning.

Quick tips to remember to win an argument:

  • Stay calm

  • Know your facts

  • Respect your opponent

  • Do not degrade or humiliate your opponent

  • Do not attack the integrity of your opponent

  • Ask questions

Remember: most arguments or debates you will encounter in life will bear little resemblance to Trump and Clinton’s last night. Try to not let the current political tone of heated arguments impact debates of of your own with friends, family and colleagues.

But if they do reach that level, now at least you know how to win.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.