Are you fed up of arguments that end in shouting matches and no conclusion being drawn? Would you like to be better at having – and winning - arguments? If so, read on for some science-backed tips to earn you a black belt in winning debates.
1. Set the Right Tone
Decide that you will not raise your voice for the entire duration of the conversation/argument. If you raise your voice, your opponent will invariably do the same, leading to a shouting match. Remember that it is the person with the best arguments, not the loudest voice, that is the most persuasive.
2. Get Your Opponent On-Side
It does not matter if your opponent’s argument seems to you to be absurd or leaves you cold. It’s absolutely key to validate their perspective. When people feel they have been validated in some way, they are more likely to be receptive to information that presents a challenge to their beliefs. We are emotional creatures, so it’s important for an emotional connection to be established (for example by emphasising common ground) before the presentation of any facts.
3. Don't Try To Win The Argument Straight Away
A common mistake people make is to rush in with a stampede of facts and figures, using these as ‘whipping boys’ to attack their opponent. Attacking your opponent’s ideas or beliefs will only encourage them to guard them even more and will put your opponent into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, making it an uphill battle for you to persuade them. Instead, gently and non-aggressively ‘work with’ their view by taking it to its logical – and hopefully unworkable – position.
4. Ask' How', Not 'Why'
In one study, people with extreme political views were separated into two groups. The first were asked to explain why their beliefs were right and those in the other group were asked how their opinions could translate into policy. Those who were asked to explain why they were right finished the experiment with their beliefs intact, whereas those who were asked the trickier question of how their beliefs would translate into detailed policy had softened their stance.
5. Change The Moral 'Frame'
According to the Moral Foundations Theory, there are five foundations to moral beliefs:
- Sanctity /Degradation
The theory has been used to explain differences in political thinking. With liberals, for example, valuing the care/harm and fairness/cheating dimension more than the others. And the conservatives valuing the dimensions of sanctity/degradation, authority/subversion and loyalty/betrayal over the others.
If you know which dimensions are highly valued by your opponent, you can then appeal to them throughout your argument. Essentially you can change the ’moral frame’ by invoking a dimension that will resonate better with them and convince them to rethink their views. One study found that “reframing environmental discourse” by invoking the sanctity/degradation dimension (reframing the rhetoric of environmental degradation as a threat to the planet’s purity) was sufficient to reduce the gap between liberals’ and conservatives’ attitudes on the environment.
6. Ask 'Open' Questions
An open question is one in which the responder cannot reply with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Open questions are a useful tool for facilitating constructive engagement as opposed to competitive wrangling. Here are two examples:
- What do you hope to achieve in five years’ time in this job?
- How do you explain the drop in sales?
7. Affect Confidence
According to one study, reported in the Wall Street Journal, facts are not always the currency of influence. People will often look for “messy proxies for expertise” such as confidence, rather than listen to the content of what a person is saying.
8. Use Data
To be taken seriously, use data. Better, use data from large, controlled, peer-reviewed studies that are the ultimate argument winner as those are the studies that have been thoroughly scrutinised by other scientists.
9. Side-Step Very Strong Emotions
If your proposal is anathema to or disgusting to your opponent, one study has shown that sidestepping, or even “reappraising” the disgust emotion can be surprisingly effective. Experts say that the technique works particularly well when one of the moral dimensions discussed above is invoked, as it serves as a distraction from the very strong negative emotion.
10. Use Social Proof
According to persuasion expert Robert Cialdini, social proof is one of the most effective ways to get people to see your point of view. Social proof uses the tendency of human beings to want to conform to the majority view and is popular among marketers, who tout the many thousands of satisfied customers of their products as a means of persuading people to buy their goods.