Winning an argument depends in substantial part on effectively using strategies to maximize your argument’s persuasive and logical force, expose weaknesses in your adversary’s argument, and convince the audience to adopt your position. Below are tips that will enhance your chances of winning an argument in many contexts, such as in court, at a debate, or in a negotiation.
1. Require that your adversary define relevant terms with specificity.
You should always require your adversary to define important terms that are essential to proving or disproving an argument. And you should never engage in or respond to arguments that consist of overly general propositions. For example, imagine the following discussion between two scholars who differ about the extent to which systemic racism and white privilege exists in the United States:
Scholar: Both history and current laws demonstrate that the United States is systemically racist, and that white privilege is pervasive throughout this country. Ultimately, until our society is more diverse and inclusive, we will continue to oppress marginalized populations.
Wow. There is a lot to unpack in that statement.
Importantly, the scholar’s adversary should neither react nor respond to the substance of that statement. Instead, the scholar’s adversary should state as follows:
I certainly agree that racism, inequality, and oppression are antithetical to basic human values. But how do you define and quantify systemic, or institutional, racism? Which specific institutions do you allege are racist? And how do you define and quantify white privilege?
This strategy forces your opponent to be specific and places on your opponent the burden to provide a definition upon which most reasonable people can agree. In so doing, the opponent will likely reveal underlying assumptions or biases in an argument and thus allow you to expose the flaws in whatever definition the adversary provides. At the very least, you will prevent your opponent from relying on unproven generalities and enable yourself to avoid a futile discourse involving statements that may lack an empirical foundation.
2. Expose logical fallacies in your opponent’s argument, especially appeals to authority and emotion.
Logical fallacies undermine many arguments. Two of the most common are the appeals to authority and emotion.
First, many advocates strive to enhance the validity and persuasiveness of an argument by relying upon well-respected sources or unnamed “experts.” Consider the following example:
Any athlete should have the right to kneel for the national anthem and thus exercise their right to free speech. As nearly every justice on the United States Supreme Court has stated, freedom of speech is critical to protecting liberty and democratic values.
This statement represents an appeal to authority. Specifically, the fact that nearly every justice on the Supreme Court may have expressed these sentiments utterly fails to support the argument that any athlete should have the right to kneel for the national anthem. In essence, the person making this statement is saying, “If the justices on the Supreme Court agree with me, the argument must be valid.” Wrong. An argument is valid only if it is based on facts and evidence.
Second, many advocates appeal to the audience’s emotion when striving to maximize an argument’s persuasive value. Consider the following example:
We must resist attempts to abolish the death penalty. A few years ago, my teenage son was brutally murdered by a man who had previously murdered four teenagers. The only way justice will be served is if we hold this man accountable for the atrocities he committed.
This is a tremendously sad story. But it is not a logically valid argument. Whether the death penalty should be abolished depends on facts and data regarding, among other things, whether the death penalty is applied fairly and equitably, and whether it deters crime. The above statement addresses none of these points.
3. Begin your argument with a foundational and well-accepted principle.
To maximize the likelihood that the audience will adopt your position, begin your argument with foundational principles that engender widespread agreement. For example, assume that you are debating whether Georgia’s recently-enacted voter identification law will suppress voter turnout, particularly among minority communities. Consider the following two statements:
Georgia’s voter identification law does not and will not impact voter turnout. And the law isn’t targeted at minority communities. It applies to everyone and enhances election integrity.
Racism and discrimination are intolerable, and equality is a basic principle of democracy and essential to liberty. To that end, we must embrace the core principle that every person, regardless of, among other things, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, has an equal right to vote and must have equal access to the ballot box. Georgia’s law does not violate this important principle.
Which statement is better? The answer should be obvious – as should the reasons why.
4. Know the statistics. Again, know the statistics.
To win an argument, you must know the relevant statistics and empirical studies that impact the argument’s validity. If you don’t, or if you rely only on statistics and studies that are favorable to you, your argument’s persuasive force vanishes along with your credibility. For example, some scholars have posited, in law review articles and other publications, that implicit bias is a major contributor to ongoing discrimination, marginalization, and oppression in society. In support of this argument, they cite studies allegedly illustrating implicit bias’s pernicious effects.
There is only one problem. Several recent studies have debunked or, at the very least, cast serious doubt upon the relationship between implicit bias and biased behavior. Sadly, very few advocates of implicit bias training have addressed this damaging evidence. This failure renders their arguments unpersuasive and calls into question their objectivity as scholars.
To avoid this mistake, be sure to prepare extensively before any argument by knowing the relevant facts and data, both favorable and unfavorable, that impact your argument. Don’t be afraid to concede bad facts. Instead, explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek and highlight how the statistics favor the position for which you advocate.
After all, facts and statistics are the foundations of powerful arguments.
5. Transition from abstract to concrete arguments.
When making an argument, avoid extensive reliance on abstract principles. Instead, provide concrete evidence and examples that support your argument, and offer a solution or rule that demonstrates your position’s practicality and workability. Consider the following example:
The Fourth Amendment should not be construed to allow law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless cell phone searches. Privacy is a bedrock principle in the Constitution and citizens have a right to be free from unreasonable, government-sanctioned intrusions on privacy. Furthermore, law enforcement must not be given the power to encroach upon basic civil liberties and thus place the freedoms of all citizens at risk.
Yeah, whatever. That statement is far too abstract. Consider this example:
Warrantless cell phone searches incident to arrest violate the Fourth Amendment. Unlike searches of closed containers or passenger compartments, a cell phone houses a vast amount of the very papers and effects, such as personal photographs, bank statements and other documents, text and email addresses, and online search history, that the Founders would have afforded the highest Fourth Amendment protection. As such, warrantless searches in this context are unreasonable per se. The Court should thus adopt a rule stating that law enforcement officers must have probable cause and warrant before searching a cell phone incident to arrest.
This statement is far more persuasive because it makes specific points, and proposes a workable and practical rule.
6. Use ‘hidden’ premises in your argument.
Including ‘hidden’ premises in your argument helps to reframe the issue(s) effectively in your favor and increases the likelihood that the audience will agree with your stated premises and conclusion. Additionally, it often presents as accepted or proven precisely the issue(s) that the argument or debate involves. Consider the following example:
The death penalty should be abolished immediately for three reasons. First, the death penalty disproportionately impacts African-American defendants. Second, it is almost certain that innocent people have been executed. Third, the death penalty serves none of the purposes of criminal punishment. Thus, because I am against racial discrimination and inequality, because I do not believe in intentionally murdering innocent civilians, and because I do not support criminal justice policies that have no societal value, the death penalty should be abolished.
This statement is effective because of the ‘hidden’ premises, even though some scholars would disagree with one or more of these assertions. But that is not the point. The point is that all reasonable people are against racial discrimination and inequality. No one believes in “intentionally murdering innocent civilians.” And few would support any policy that has no societal value. By including in your argument widely accepted principles, you increase the likelihood that the audience will accept your argument and adopt your position.
7. Never allow your adversary to characterize you or your argument inaccurately.
Make your adversary work diligently to establish any point that impacts negatively your argument. Put simply, always challenge inferences or assumptions that your adversary makes to undermine your position. Consider the following example:
Professor Smith recently drafted an article claiming that the late Justice Antonin Scalia was an “intellectual giant on the Supreme Court and the author of many extraordinary opinions that respected the Constitution’s text and structure.” Professor Smith’s endorsement of conservative values and a conservative judicial philosophy means that he will support judges who turn a blind eye to progressive values and marginalized populations.
Be sure to call out such nonsense. What Professor Smith said does not even remotely support the proposition that he endorses conservative values and will support judges who “turn a blind eye” to progressive values (whatever that means). Never allow your adversary to get away with such a misrepresentation and never concede more than is necessary to maintain your argument’s credibility.
8. Listen more and talk less.
It’s the quality, not the quantity, that matters. In an argument, never talk too much and dominate the discussion. When you do so, it suggests that you are insecure about the merits of your argument, that you believe your adversary has made compelling points that require an immediate response (which gives your adversary credibility), and that you are so rigidly attached to your argument that alternative perspectives are neither necessary nor welcomed. Unfortunately, that approach undermines your credibility.
Remember, less is more. You should listen calmly and carefully to your adversary’s argument. You should recognize good points that your adversary makes and strive to find areas of agreement. And when you do speak, be sure to make a concise, high-quality, and compelling statement. What does that mean? Get to the point immediately. Start with a powerful theme. Use the Rule of Three. Lead with your strongest points. Use statistics to support your assertions. End powerfully and confidently.
Then, shut up.
The best advocates pick their battles effectively.
9. Never show emotion.
Getting emotional is one of the worst things that you can do in an argument. When you show emotion, such as by being angry, irritated, or offended, it typically means that your adversary is winning the argument and that you are not confident in your position. Consider the following two statements from the captain of an airline to passengers who just flew through severe turbulence in bad weather:
Hi everyone, please do not worry. I know that things were really rough for several minutes, but I will never allow this plane to crash! Let me repeat – I will not let this plane crash, no matter what! I am a veteran of the Air Force and I’m going to fight this weather to the death!
If I were a passenger on this plane, I would immediately believe that the plane was going to crash nose-first into a ditch. Now consider this statement:
Hi folks, sorry about the rough air we just encountered. The plane is fine, of course, and the turbulence we just encountered is pretty common in this part of the country. We’re going to change our altitude as soon as possible to make your flight as comfortable as possible and we don’t expect much rough air for the rest of the flight.
If I were a passenger on this plane, I would feel assured and safe. The difference wasn’t simply the words. It was the measured manner with which the latter statement was delivered.
Simply put, in an argument, be confident. Be calm. Never act surprised by a point your adversary makes or a question that your adversary asks. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t show passion and conviction. You should certainly be your authentic self. But you must avoid the negative reactions and emotional outbursts that invariably raise questions about your credibility and the merits of your argument.
10. Don’t be an a******.
People like others who are nice. They like others who are respectful, friendly, and civil. They like others who are mature. They like others who are honest and genuine. And when people like you, they will be more likely to listen to you and find you credible. Most importantly, when people like you, they are more inclined to adopt your position. After all, people associate with those that they like and respect.
Conversely, people hate jerks. And they know them when they see them. Jerks attack people rather than ideas. Jerks insult others. Jerks always think that they are right and that else is always wrong. Jerks interrupt people when they are speaking. Jerks misrepresent others’ positions. The list goes on and on.
You get the point. Don’t be an a******.
Remember, when you make an argument, people are not just listening to what you say. They are evaluating you.