I spent the day Sunday watching and judging high school debate, a great opportunity to observe what works and what does not work in argument. In one of the debates, on the proposition that convicted drunk drivers should be required to display special license plates, the opposing team argued that breathalyzer-interlock devices are more effective than drunk driver license plates. In response the proposition team made the mistake of trying to shoot down the interlock idea: interlock devices are too expensive, they do not alert the police and other drivers to possibly dangerous drivers, etc. They fell into the trap of thinking that because they had to prove that their idea is good, it follows that they had to prove that the other side’s idea is bad. If the proposition team had simply said that they welcome other approaches to dealing with the problem of drunk drivers, but that we should still adopt their license plate idea as one available tool for reducing drunk driving, they could have won the debate.
A mistake we often make when we are trying to win an argument comes from reacting negatively to everything the other side is suggesting. (See my previous post on knee jerk responses.) We sometimes forget that we don’t always have to defeat the other side’s suggestion to prevail with our own. Often it is more effective to respond positively to the other side’s ideas and try to find a way to accommodate them. Of course there are times when we need to prove that the other side has their facts wrong, or that they are asking for more than they are entitled to, but that doesn’t mean you have to fall into the trap of disagreeing with or trying to disprove every single thing the other side is saying. Sometimes you are more likely to carry the day if you agree with some of the other side’s points, or at least express interest in their ideas, and explore where they might lead.
In mediation, parties have a hard time resolving conflicts if they spend all their time trying to win by making the other side lose. Instead they should try to display openness to the other side’s position, and look for ways to transcend the subject of the original dispute. Mediation works by building on areas of agreement, more than by arguing about areas of disagreement. Parties sometimes need to move beyond the subject at which they are at odds, and focus instead on areas of common interest. Below is a video illustrating how to win an argument by transforming the topic, the great ice cream debate from the movie, Thank You for Smoking. As the protagonist points out in the movie, this technique might even be more effective in persuading a third party of the merits of your idea, than in persuading the other side. That means that what I am talking about is not only a useful approach in mediation, because it breaks the cycle of an endless, unwinnable argument, but it can also work in a more traditional adversarial setting as well.
For an illustration of how NOT to argue, go to this classic clip from Monty Python demonstrating just how pointless it is simply to contradict everything the other side says.