To Win Hearts — and Maybe Arguments — First Know Your Own Mind.

Typing in CAPS won’t work. Here are 5 things that will.

Sadhbh Zilla


Keep your focus on the outcome you want for better results (and less stress). Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Pandemics and politics, antifa and antivax, fake news and flat earthers; there’s never been more reasons to get into an argument with your family, your friends, and even random strangers on the internet.

If your fitness tracker thinks you’re working out 40 times a day because your heart rate and blood pressure spike every time you get online, I get it. It feels like there’s so much at stake right now that every conversation is a debate you need to win.

But is all this arguing actually helping you, or your cause? Is your time spent crafting comments actually helping people to understand the issues better? And is the stress it creates a productive use of your time? A lot of the time, probably not.

That doesn’t mean you should give up, but you do need to take a look at what you are doing and why. Firstly, you need to focus not on your opponent but your own argument and what you are asking for — what result do you want, and why? Who are you really talking to? And, once you know that, how do you do it?

A man, looking stressed, with his head bowed and rubbing his temples.
Stay on track to reduce your stress and increase the odds of a good result. Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

What do you want, and why?

When emotions start running high, keep your focus on the outcome you want, not just winning the fight, says the New York Times bestselling conflict resolution book, Crucial Conversations.

Once in a stressful conversation, we often lose sight of the bigger picture, focusing on the specifics of a small part of an argument, or taking things personally, instead of remembering why we started talking in the first place. What were we trying to achieve when we started out?

Remember the overall purpose of the interaction, and set your aim accordingly. Do you want to change someone’s mind, or speak out in a disagreement, or to win over some of the audience? Is it even reasonable for you to want to change their opinion, or should you take a deep breath and move on?

Why are you having this difficult conversation at all — what’s your goal? Once you know that, it’s time to think about who are you actually speaking to.

Who are you talking to?

And can you change their mind? While it feels good to go in all guns blazing against that relation’s friend’s aunt on Facebook, chances you’re not going to budge their thinking.

Don’t waste your time on trolls and don’t waste your time on people who’ve already made up their mind. If someone’s self-identity conflicts with your argument, chances are their views are too entrenched for you to get anywhere by endlessly arguing. It’s just wasting everyone’s time and energy.

If you’re debating to make a point to an audience or to make a stand, you can still refuse to be silent but not get over-engaged: state your disagreement clearly and calmly, point people in the direction of some accurate information, and move on before you get bogged down.

Research at Cornell, which analyzed 18,000 threads on Reddit, found that some techniques were more common when there was a genuine change of heart: responding sooner rather than later; limiting the discussion to under 4 exchanges; and linking to outside evidence from a trusted source. You may not be able to persuade your opponent, but you might sway some of the readers.

A dart board with a dart dead in the centre bullseye.
Keep your target results in the centre of your mind and your arguments. Photo by Silvan Arnet on Unsplash

Use tactics that work

You’re centred and ready to talk, so how do you go about it? Once you have focused on your goal and your audience, here are some science-backed techniques to tip the discussion in your favor.

1. Tailor your pitch

Insulting peoples’ intelligence and morals isn’t going to change their mind. But often it’s not about empathy either, or sharing the argument you find the most persuasive. You need to step back from what would work for you and think about them.

A series of studies suggest to persuade, you should approach the argument from their values, not your own. Conservatives are more likely to listen to liberal ideas if they’re framed in terms of conservative values like patriotism and loyalty, whereas Liberals will hear out conservative policies if they address core values like fairness and equality. Get into their head and tailor your argument to the audience’s needs and values.

2. Bring in new and good ideas

Another study found that voters are rarely persuaded by additional information about candidates they know a great deal about (telling them their preferred option is bad), but are more open to persuasion about candidates about whom they know less.

Being informed of new and positive information about something is more likely to cause a change of heart than having an established position or person knocked.

2. Start with a favor

Not sure how to begin? Ask them for a favor. Research suggests that we like people for whom we’ve done favors and are more likely to listen to them and help again in the future — the so-called Ben Franklin effect.

“I know there is a lot going on, but could you give me just two minutes? I’d like to tell you about me/my friend’s family and how your action/vote affects them.”

3. Put down that keyboard

On that note, lots of people aren’t online all the time. 10% of U.S. adults, for example, do not use the internet, and about 30% are not on Facebook.

Spending 5 minutes crafting a(nother) sharp comment on Facebook probably won’t win people over but a conversation or a phone call from someone they know and like might. Turn to your coworker, or phone your family, and start a conversation.

5. Be your best you.

People assume the actions of others reflect the correct behavior, especially in difficult or ambiguous social situations where they can’t determine the “correct” course of action. One large-scale Facebook experiment (over 61 million people) found people who were shown their friends have voted are significantly more likely to go out and vote.

So one easy way you can make your opinion really count is just being you; by being public about what you believe and how happy acting on that makes you feel.

By living your values and focusing on why the conversation started and your goals in it, conversations can be centered around what matters most before things start getting heated.

If we can focus on results instead of trading barbs, it’s more likely we will have a discussion which both has better outcomes and keep everyone’s stress levels under control.

And, no matter what way you lean, we can all agree that’s a good result.

Sadhbh Warren is a project manager and business writer, and who has spent a lot of time and energy facilitating difficult discussions and negotiating actions and results. Some advice in this is adapted from pieces written for the Australian marriage equality poll in 2017 and the Irish Repeal referendum in 2018.



Sadhbh Zilla
Writer for

Writer and project manager from Cork, Ireland. Past jobs include: PA, games store manager, Zombie steward, promo person, carnie and Santa’s sweariest Elf.