Why You’re Losing Arguments

You’re in an intellectual argument, and know you’re right. You have presented the evidence in your favor, and effectively countered the other person’s critiques.

But the other person still sticks to his position, and you go away feeling like you’ve lost.

This is a source of frustration to many, and used to be a source of frustration to me when I was younger. But as I went on in my academic career, I realized why I was losing so many arguments: it was because I was doing the exact opposite of what one should do to be an effective arguer.

If you’re like I was, and losing more arguments than you would care to, some or all of the following reasons may be why:

1) You’re not listening enough.

Before the other person finishes speaking, a lot of arguers are already busy focusing on their counteroffensive. It’s not uncommon for them to silence their foes with a mid-sentence interruption. You can see it in action on such shows as The O’Reilly Factor and Hardball. In the social media world it takes the form of the rapid-fire commenter.

But then what you have is not a dialogue, but a monologue, and the other person picks up on it. She will feel that you aren’t really listening to her, and she’ll be right. Not an effective way to win someone over to your view of things.   

2) You’re not asking enough questions.

Many arguments are ineffective because they remain on the surface-level, as the parties only engage each other’s most visible positions. But the famous 19th century thinker John Henry Newman held that what really separated people was not their visible positions, but their “first principles”—their fundamental assumptions and beliefs. When you ask questions, you can flesh out these underlying principles, and perhaps make some more headway in the argument.

Take the issue of climate change, for instance. You may be arguing that there’s man-made climate change, and refer to scientific studies to prove it. But it’s a lost cause if your opponent has, as a first principle, a significant distrust of science, perhaps as a result of personal experience or the influence of certain authors. You would have to isolate and engage that principle of scientific distrust first before you could ever hope to convince the person that climate change is in part caused by human actions.

3) You’re afraid to concede anything.

No human being is infallible. Even though the substance of your position may be correct, your way of expressing it is inevitably imperfect. Also, your position is based upon a nexus of other beliefs, assumptions, and interpretations, and some of these fall short of the full truth. Acknowledge this, and be willing to meet the other person part-way. Don’t be afraid to concede some things that you’re either unsure of, or that do not completely undermine your position. 

4) You’re trying to win arguments.

Many enter into arguments hoping that they’ll exit the victor, with the other person adopting a different position. This rarely happens as a result of one conversation. If you’re hoping for this, you’re going to be disappointed, and could lose your patience or become angry.

Life is not a debate match in which a judge determines a winner based on objective criteria. Often, the most you can do is plant seeds of thought in the other person that may eventually bear fruit in a change of mind and heart. But that change is not going to happen purely as a result of your logic and persuasion, and it won’t happen instantaneously. 

The suggestions above may sound paradoxical, but as G.K. Chesterton said, “Paradox is truth standing on her head to get attention.” Stop trying to win arguments, and you’ll most likely become better at arguing.