Most of the time, “winning” an argument is not that important. It’s usually better to explore ideas in a collaborative way and to come to shared agreements. But sometimes, you find yourself in an old-fashioned debate. Here’s how to win.
What Not To Do
- Give up too soon
Giving up too soon usually means you are intimidated by how well prepared or confident your opponent appears to be, and you don’t feel comfortable facing them anymore. You may say something like, “Well, we can just agree to disagree,” or “well, that’s your opinion, and I have mine,” or even, “OK, you clearly know more about this than I do. Fine, you win.”
That last example may seem admirable, and it often is admirable to admit defeat, but a lot of people give up too soon. Before you concede to your opponent, you should know how to test their thinking.
- Refuse to give up at all
The opposite mistake people make when they try to oppose an argument is they dig in their heels without any strategy for actually winning. This means they may not have the evidence or reasoning to defend their position well, so they just keep repeating themselves, refusing to engage with their opponent’s ideas.
This fallacious approach is called begging the question. Begging the question is NOT, as most people think, just another way of saying raising the question. A question is “raised” when a set of circumstances create the need for an answer, or when someone simply asks a question because they genuinely need an answer. You might be in a meeting where someone proposes expanding into new markets. That proposal raises the question of cost. It does not beg the question of cost.
A question is “begged” when someone refuses to answer a question and just keeps repeating the same premise over and over again, thus forcing people to repeat the same question.
This happens a lot with children:
“I want to go to my friend’s house.”
“But it’s past curfew. Why should you be able to go tonight?”
“Because I WANT TO”
“I understand. But why should you be able to break the rule just because you want to?”
“Because I just really want to!”
In this case, the child is begging the question, because they are just repeating their own premise rather than responding to the parent’s question with any evidence or reasoning.
This fallacy also happens a lot in religion:
“I know God is real and the Bible is true.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I have felt God tell me.”
“How do you know that what you felt is the voice of God?”
“Because the Bible makes it clear that that is how God communicates.”
“But how do you know the Bible is true?”
“Because God tells me.”
This kind of reasoning is also called circular reasoning. Notice how the one answering the question just returns to their own premise, forcing (“begging”) the questioner to repeat the same question over and over.
- Muddy the Waters
The third way people fail to oppose an argument responsibly is by muddying the waters. People muddy the waters when they know they’re not going to win the argument, so they create new topics to argue about. Your significant other may have proven that you regularly forget to clean up your dishes and that they do most of the kitchen cleaning. Rather than engage with the evidence and address the issue head-on, you might point out that the real issue is how rude they’re being about it.
Politicians do this all of the time. It’s called a red herring fallacy. They may be asked about their ideas for creating border security policies or regulating guns, but they might say, “The real issue Americans care about is runaway inflation.”
Avoiding fallacies is always the first step to good argumentation. But how do you poke holes in the reasoning of your opponent?
What To Do
The ancient Greeks believed in a concept called agonism. Agonism is the notion that, just like athletes or warriors, ideas need to undergo tests of strength and durability. In wrestling, for instance, opponents engage each other head-on until there is a clear winner. Just so, arguments should not be accepted just because they look better at first glance, nor should they be rejected just because they look undesirable at first glance.
Let’s say you’re a member of the university student senate, and someone comes in with an argument to double student parking on campus. This proposal would be expensive and highly disruptive to the campus, but the student feels strongly that it is needed.
In fact, this student has real numbers to back up their claim: Dozens of students are missing class time every week due to a lack of parking; thousands of dollars are being paid every semester by ticketed students who can scarcely afford any more expenses; student drivers are wasting precious fuel driving around looking to park. It’s time the university repurpose some of its precious real estate for a new, large, student-only parking structure.
You may or may not sympathize with this student, but your job is to test their thinking. I will discuss in a separate blog how to test your opponent’s evidence (remember the 3 R’s: Is the evidence reliable, recent, and relevant?). This blog is about challenging your opponent’s reasoning. Here are 3 ways to do it like a pro:
- Challenge the seriousness of the problem. Are the harms associated with the current parking conditions really that significant?
- Ask them to put the numbers in perspective. Dozens of students may be missing class time every week, but is that a significant number in light of the overall student population?
- Thousands of dollars in tickets are definitely hurting some student drivers, but again, how many are we talking about? And how does this cost compare to the increase in student fees or tuition that will be required to build a grand new structure?
- Students may be complaining about gasoline, money, and time, but are those complaints translating into any real harm to the university and to overall student life? Are students threatening to change schools?
- Challenge the cause of the problem. Let’s say there is, as this student claims, a serious problem related to parking on campus. Is a lack of parking stalls the main cause?
- Ask the student if they’ve considered other reasons for the disparity between cars and parking stalls. Maybe the cause isn’t a lack of stalls but an overabundance of cars.
- Is the cause of the problem a lack of encouragement from university leaders to get students to bike, walk, or carpool to campus?
- Is there a lack of walking and biking paths?
- Should there be incentives for carpooling?
- Should the university focus less on being a commuter campus, and more on becoming a residential campus?
- Should the university’s shuttle system be upgraded to include more stops, routes, and pick-up times?
- Challenge the solution to the problem. Let’s say the university were to adopt the proposal for a massive, expensive new parking structure. Would it solve the problem without creating new problems down the proverbial road?
- Ask the student if they’ve considered the university’s plan for growth over the next ten years. Would a single parking structure be enough to head off demand for thousands of new students?
- Ask the student if they’ve considered where the money to build such a structure might come from? Wouldn’t the expense of building this structure be more of a burden to students than the money they’re paying in tickets now?
- What about the real estate they propose for locating the structure? What will the university need to give up in order to build it? Green space? Classrooms? Labs?
- Given the university’s long-term goals and limited budget, wouldn’t it make more sense to try to curb parking demand than to feed it?
- [BONUS] Consider a counterplan. Now that you’ve created lots of new, relevant questions for your opponent to consider, you might want to introduce a counter plan.
NOTE: Only introduce a counterplan if you accept the problem and its significance, but you disagree with the cause. If you think you’ve identified a more accurate cause for the problem, you can build a counterplan that is more effective at neutralizing the problem. For instance:
- A comprehensive redesign of campus shuttle routes and walking and biking paths, along with carpooling incentives would be better at addressing long-term transportation demand.
- These initiatives could be paired with an aggressive communication campaign to encourage students to walk, bike, ride, or carpool to campus.
- These initiatives could be enacted at half the financial cost of a massive new parking structure, and they won’t use up much valuable real estate, which might be better put to use for much needed classrooms in the future.
- A more walkable, rideable campus is more likely to create an attractive campus and a more enjoyable student experience.
A lot of us are uncomfortable with argumentation. Too often we take it personally. That’s why we often give up too soon or withdraw into poor reasoning. If the student senator in the example above had given in to their own discomfort, they might have responded by:
- Giving up too soon. “Wow, your numbers look good, and you clearly feel strongly about this. I have a different opinion, but I say we put it to a vote now.”
- Refusing to give up by not engaging. “I see what you mean, but I just don’t think it’s worth it to build a new structure. Sorry. What do you say to that?” [After the student offers more evidence]: “I hear what you’re saying, but like I said, it’s not worth the university’s time or money. There will be no vote on this.”
- Muddying the waters. “Yeah, I know parking is a real concern for students, but I think they’re more concerned with our institutional rankings right now. Our reputation has to take priority, don’t you think?”
None of these approaches would have been good for the university’s policies or budget. Instead, the student senator in the earlier example honored the agonistic process of argumentation. The ancient Greeks did not engage in agonism just because they liked fighting and dividing the world into winners and losers, although that may be true as well. They embraced agonism because they wanted to put ideas and policies through a process of testing, to see which ones would serve the community best.
The healthiest way to approach disagreement is to try to win and to challenge your opponent’s thinking, but to acknowledge, after a rigorous process of testing and debate, which idea is best. When the best ideas rise to the top, we all win.
Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.
His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.
Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.
In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.