First, let’s define what it means to win. It is a natural inclination to enter an argument with the sole purpose of proving ourselves right or getting our way. But here’s the problem: Doing so is setting yourself up for a battle, and when locked into a power struggle with someone, we turn each other into an adversary. Adversaries don’t like to capitulate.
Instead of angling for victory through a winner/loser framework, think about your next argument as an opportunity to work toward resolution. One of the definitions of winning is, in fact, “to succeed in arriving at a place or state.” That’s what your goal should be.
The key is to reach a resolution that meets your needs. How to do it? First, change your point of view from I to us. Then, listen carefully. That’s the short version. Here’s the longer one.
When possible, plan ahead. Say you and your boss have opposing views on an issue and you know a showdown is imminent, or you’re trying to convince your partner to kick a habit like smoking, take time to craft your appeal. Before you make your pitch, you want your partner to be sympathetic to your point of view, explains Robert Cialdini, author of the book Pre-Suasion. Cialdini spent three years observing businesspeople who excelled in the art of persuasion. He found that the best persuaders “didn’t rely on the legitimate merits of an offer to get it accepted; [instead] they recognized that the psychological frame in which an appeal is first placed can carry equal or greater weight.” Your ideas and fine logic are not enough. You need to create a climate in which the other feels inclined to hear you out. Look for times that are ideal for discussion — like when your boss or partner is relaxed and able to fully focus on the conversation. Build an alliance and follow the guidelines below.
If you find yourself in a spontaneous disagreement, take a deep breath and enter into the ring with a spirit of cooperation. Let the person vent. Anger that’s not stoked with rebuttals subsides over time. And then try saying something along the lines of, “Hey, I hear that you’re upset, but I think we can solve this together.”
If you’re the one who is riled up, take an even deeper breath and slow the situation down. Physically step back or, if seated, lean back in your chair — these moves will help you feel less reactive. Gently remind yourself that anger won’t benefit your cause. You can’t help that you feel upset, but you can help what you do with those emotions. Wayne Ury, co-author of Getting to Yes and co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, writes that the biggest obstacle to getting what you want is, typically, you and your irrational behavior. Is it easy to stay calm in the midst of a disagreement? No. But with practice you will incrementally get better at slowing down your reactions and controlling your emotions.
The key is to reach a resolution that meets your needs.
Here’s a trick to help you chill out: Mentally go to the balcony. Imagine that you are standing on a theater balcony, looking down on the argument you are presently in, counsels Ury. View the situation as if it were a play being acted on a stage. Your frustration will begin to subside, and your reasoning will come back online. You will feel more detached and less emotional. A key to successful discussions is the ability to step back, Ury says.
Be polite, listen, and get to know the other person’s point of view. Yes, you have an agenda. But people are much more likely to listen to you if you have listened to them. You might say something in the spirit of, “Help me understand where you are coming from on this issue.” Or, to your partner who can’t stop smoking, “I really want to know what this struggle is like for you.” Humans enjoy talking about themselves. (Just scan Facebook posts for confirmation of this fact.) When you let people talk, they feel good. And when people feel good, they are more likely to be receptive to you.
Try to understand the other person’s perspective.
A study published in 2012 investigated why talking about oneself is so pleasurable. Researchers conducted a series of experiments in which they hooked subjects up to a brain scan machine and asked them to talk about their opinions on specific topics. When the subjects were expressing their opinions out loud—rather than just thinking them—the regions of the brain that typically become active when one is enjoying a delicious meal or a sexual encounter lit up. “Humans self-disclose because doing so represents an event with intrinsic value,” the authors wrote, “in the same way as with primary rewards such as food and sex.”
Reflect, Don’t React
Try to understand the other person’s perspective. Paraphrase their ideas and feelings and repeat them back. Say something like, “I hear you saying that…,” or, “Wow, now I see why this situation was so upsetting for you.” Follow up with clarifying questions to make sure you fully understand their position. Learning to take another person’s perspective will help you become more effective during arguments and bolster your well-being over the long term. Being able to shift mindsets from me to you or from me to us promotes psychological flexibility, which is the ability to tolerate difficult emotions and experiences, rather than avoid or suppress them. And, according to numerous studies, psychological flexibility is one of the cornerstones of sound mental health.
Take Your Turn
Calmly explain how you feel, what your position is, and your hope that the other person will listen carefully to your point of view. Use “I” statements and avoid absolutist words such as never, always, or nothing. Resist the temptation to tell someone else how they think or feel with a sentence that starts with “you,” as in “You seem to feel,” or “You always want.” This will only alienate the other person and erase the alliance you have been working so hard to build.
Focus on your shared goal, even if that goal is simply to reach a resolution.
You understand their point of view, and if you have stayed calm and made your case, they understand yours. Get back to the we-ness of the situation. Focus on your shared goal, even if that goal is simply to reach a resolution. You may want different things, but you both want to stop arguing and get the issue resolved. Keep in mind the rule of reciprocity by which most humans abide: If you do something for me, I will feel more inclined to do something for you. Invite the other person to solve the problem: “What are your thoughts on how to resolve this impasse?” It’s possible they might have a great idea or two.