How to win explosive arguments


I thought I’d write something explosive for #Fireworks night, and what could be more explosive than a good row? Well actually, I’ve lured you in; this post is really about staying calm and winning your well-structured argument.

Daniel Cohen explains with a great metaphor about war in his TED talk:

“Once it’s war, we’re no longer focused on what’s right, we just want to win by any means necessary. No, not just the other guy — you’re doing it too.”

Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert, I’ve lost many an argument, and been left with an internal monologue of, if only I’d said: “but you’re guaranteed 3000 more users if you do it my way” or, “but you’re contradicting your earlier point” or, “you spend 3.5 hours a week on the phone to your mum, I’m sure you can spend five minutes rubbing my feet!”.  But, alas everything is clearer with hindsight, time bends the facts and memory fragments the flow of an argument.

So, here’s your challenge: if you’re heading towards an explosive row, make it a really good argument, and prepare for it, trying out these tips.

1. Know your audience

Yes, yes we’ve heard it before, communicate differently to different audiences, but I’m afraid I have to start here, there’s no other way! Know your audience, and what makes them tick, and you’ll unlock the relevant ‘aha!’ gem. For example, if I wanted to pitch opening a Twitter account to my mum I’d really have to think carefully.  She’s already on Facebook, she likes a closed network, and so, what would she gain? I’d present her with health and fitness groups to offer her tips, a daily news feed and trending hash tags about her favourite TV programmes.  I wouldn’t say, ‘think of the wider network you’ll reach mum!’ or, ‘it will really help to grow your flower group’.  She’d say, “Anna, I love you, but I have enough followers with your dad’.

2. Where and when

What kind of argument do you want?  Do you want to argue privately, or are you partial to a stand up row with a strategic audience? – I’m not endorsing the latter by the way. Take a look at an earlier piece I wrote about working from home.  Are you a morning or an afternoon person? Map out your most alert hours.  You’ll want to be at your sharpest when you argue your case.

3. Outcome

Do you want a pay rise, to pitch an idea, to challenge existing ideas, or simply to breakup with someone crazy? You must work out beforehand what you want.  Do you know that couples tend to argue on average 2,500 times a year? There’s nothing worse than an argument that goes nowhere.  Lots of eye rolling, huffing and frayed tempers, but to what end? Divorce?

4. Plant a seed

This leads on from my previous point, if you’re pitching in an idea – I have a brilliant example for this one by the way – make sure that you plant a seed and leave it.  For our wedding I asked my husband if we could have a barn dance band.  You can imagine his response – well actually you probably can’t – he thought a barn dance was the same as a line dance and was very confused, but nevertheless, it was a flat out ‘no’.  But I persevered, I told him how important it was to me, how it would bring together people who hadn’t met before and – I nailed it with a finishing blow – ‘I’ll even sacrifice the videographer’, that’s how much it means to me. (I’m not bragging but the videographer loved the barn dance.)

5. Language

No, not foul language! – unless your outcome is the ‘break up with someone crazy’ option, in which case, perhaps using a few choice words is the best approach! I recently wrote a piece about category A words (words you don’t know) and category B words (words newly-added to the dictionary), in this case it’s the same, words matter. Use persuasive language without dictating, make your argument purr rather than SHOUT and pick words that stick (like ‘big’ market increase, (you’re a) ‘massive’ idiot and ‘titanium’ speaker line-up etc.).

6. Structure

Start with an attention grabber. They say for every one headline, write 10 of them, the same applies to the attention grabber.

“40,000 children are injured on playgrounds each year, swings account for 40% of them.  Crash Mats are cheap, but less than 5% are sold to playgrounds”.

(I’ve made that up by the way.)

7. Personalise it

“You wouldn’t want your niece to fall off a swing without a Crash Mat, would you?”

8. Preview 

Mention the main points to be covered off. Repetition is important.  The preview should end with a brief pause, ‘I’m not finished yet!’ to signal moving from introduction to full argument.

9. Full bodied (red wine?)

Fewer points are always better and more likely to be remembered – three main points as a rule works well. Demonstrate cause and effect, why should they care? You will have signposted these in the preview anyway. Repetition again. You might want to number your points too. ‘Firstly, you’re a massive idiot’, ‘secondly, you’ve got bad taste in dessert’ and ‘finally, your white socks should never be worn with your man-sandals’.

10. To conclude

Good conclusions refer back to the introduction and offer an analogy that captures the main point.

“If you don’t invest in Crash Mats, then you’re standing in the way of playground safety, and 40% of injuries sit squarely on your shoulders.”

A note to leave you on, when you have the luxury to think through and plan an argument before it takes place, you might, just might discover that it’s not worth arguing about at all.   In which case, a long intake of breath and a large glass of wine is enough.

Picture citation: peaceful-jp-scenery Tsuchiura Fireworks Display (2) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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