The Three Ways to Argue

There are three ways to argue with someone:

  1. Tell them why they are wrong
  2. Tell them why they are wrong, and why you are right
  3. Share a different perspective

The first approach involves telling the other person all the ways their thinking is wrong, stupid, and clearly flawed.

If you are in a debate competition, by all means, destroy the other person’s position and rip it to shreds.

This is a powerful competitive debate tactic because as you tear down someone else’s ideas, you conveniently avoid presenting your own.

You can stay on the offensive, poking holes in their ideas without ever giving the other side anything to challenge.

This frustrates and infuriates the other side, allowing you to “win” the debate.

The second approach involves telling the other person why they are wrong, and why your ideas are right.

Similar to the first approach, you demolish the other person’s position and highlight why your position makes more sense.

In the war for ideas, you beat their ideas down to allow yours to flourish.

Again, if you’re in a competitive debate, this is how you win — by beating the other side.

However, if the person you’re debating is your boss, a client, or your spouse, you might not want to completely “destroy” them.

That’s because, unlike a competitive debate, you presumably still want to have a good relationship with your boss, client, or spouse after the “debate” is over.

The first two approaches tend to “win” the debate by alienating others and damaging the relationship.

When you damage an important relationship, you “lose” in the end.

Alienating others isn’t a good way to protect key relationships.

This leads us to our third approach to “arguing” that I call sharing a “different perspective.”

In this paradigm, there is no right or wrong perspective.

There are merely perspectives that “differ” from one another.

If your client, boss, or spouse wants to do something really stupid, you do NOT say, “That’s a stupid idea.”

Instead you say, “Oh, that's interesting. I had a different perspective on the issue, and a different approach in mind.”

Then you lay out your thinking, explaining the rationale behind it, and articulating why it makes sense.

You can also point out your “concerns” and “hesitations” about their approach/perspective.

Then... you give the other person the space to decide for themselves.

This is the secret to the “different perspective” approach.

In the previous win/lose paradigms, you’re telling the other person what to think.

You’re telling them their default thinking is wrong.

This creates a psychological power hierarchy.

You’re better than the person on the other side because you’re “right” and they are “wrong.”

A power hierarchy is what happens when a parent tells a child, "You’re wrong."

It’s what happens when a boss tells a subordinate, "You’re wrong."

In some situations where the actual organization hierarchy mirrors the psychological hierarchy, it can work.

However, anytime you’re telling a peer or a superior they’re wrong, you want to do so without appearing as if you are reversing the power hierarchy.

In the “different perspective” approach, you make the alternative point of view, relevant facts, and rationale known to the other person without implying that you are better than they are.

By allowing them the space to decide for themselves, you’re non-verbally stating: “I respect your position, authority, and decision-making right in this situation. I am not trying to challenge your power. I simply have additional information for YOU to consider.”

It is a subtle but profoundly important distinction.

The first two approaches unnecessarily create a power hierarchy when it doesn’t need to exist.

There end up being two debates -- the debate of ideas, and the debate of who is high/low in the power hierarchy.

The “different perspective” approach affirms the existing power hierarchy, and simply introduces additional information to be considered.

Incidentally, the latter approach is the key to not getting fired at McKinsey.

(If you imply a client is stupid in public, you will not be employed very long as a consultant.)

It’s also the key to having healthy close personal relationships with spouses, friends, and family.

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