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The Secret to Winning an Argument

Be civil, mind your biases, ask good questions, and level the emotional playing field

Melody Wilding
Jul 19, 2018 · 5 min read
Credit: Diana Ong/SuperStock/Getty

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Incivility is rampant. Seventy-three percent of Americans feel that the United States is “losing stature as a civil nation.” But it’s hard not to wake up every day with a pit in your stomach wondering, “What tragedy will it be today?”

It seems as though the negativity is contagious and that disagreements are multiplying, popping up everywhere from the dinner table to the boardroom. Studies prove that rudeness also runs rampant in our workplaces, costing employers upwards of $12 million a year in lost customers, productivity, and employee happiness. The researcher who studied this phenomenon, Christine Porath, said in an interview with CBS News, “The number one reason people admit to being uncivil is because they’re stressed out or overloaded. They feel they don’t have time to be nice.”

We blame workaholism for our lack of emotional regulation. We use technology as an excuse for the dehumanizing comments we sling back and forth on social media. We bemoan the lack of true human connection. But as a high-performance coach who helps managers, entrepreneurs, and executives tackle difficult conversations, I believe the deeper issue is that we have a dysfunctional relationship with conflict itself.

Most of us, especially women, are taught to fear confrontation and shy away from difficult conversations. Others among us turn to unproductive reactions like exploding with anger or use tactics like stonewalling and gaslighting. It all stems from a lack of knowledge and training in how to deal with disagreements effectively and constructively.

Biologically speaking, these reactions make sense. They are protective. The brain perceives conflict as a threat to our safety, and instinctive reactions take over — what Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman termed the “amygdala hijack.” Stress hormones surge; complex mental functions like self-control, memory, and perspective-taking shut down. The amygdala hijack is responsible for our typical modus operandi toward conflict: anger, defensiveness, and a rush to prove why we’re right and they’re wrong.

While these reactions are natural, they don’t have to lead to acrimony. Over the past 30 years, psychologists have found not only that conflict is healthy, but also that there are methods to “fight right” in ways that lead to better outcomes.

Watch Your Biases

When you have to cancel or say no to someone, it’s probably for good reason. You may be busy or have other commitments. But if someone cancels on you, you might assume that person is unreliable or flaky. This tendency to attribute another’s actions to poor character while dismissing our own shortcomings as a result of external forces is called the fundamental attribution error (FAE).

The FAE leads us to misinterpret motivations instead of trying to understand situational factors at play. When we explain behavior in terms of a person’s character or nature, it can’t be changed. We conclude that they’re a bad person, and any chance of constructive problem-solving ends there.

Transcending our cognitive biases is hard, but it can be done with self-awareness and empathy. What else might be going on in a person’s life to trigger their response? How can you change the environment — say, by getting out of the office or switching from text to phone — to create more conducive conditions for dialogue?

Practice Extreme Agreement

Counterintuitively, appealing to logic and factual reasoning may backfire in arguments. Behavioral economist Dan Kahan found that the use of reason fuels stronger partisanship. Why? When people feel their beliefs are threatened, their fight-or-flight response puts them on guard. They double down and defend their position more.

Rather than trying to “win” over your opponent by asking why they believe something, instead ask how they see their argument playing out. This tactic, known as “extreme agreement,” helps people realize the limits of their understanding, opening them up to new perspectives.

Researchers in one study found that “[w]hen political extremists were asked to explain how their favorite policy would create change — rather than rattle off the reasons for why the policy should be enacted — their views quickly softened.” Frank Keil, a Yale University psychologist, also noted, “If you ask [a person to] gently and non-aggressively walk you through their point of view, they’ll likely see the holes more.”

More important, the process of extreme agreement can give you insight into someone else’s thinking, so you can empathize and respond, not react.

Level the Emotional Playing Field

Contempt is the biggest relationship killer, according to decades of research by couples therapist John Gottman. Common displays of contempt like sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, and mockery obviously up the emotional ante of any fight and should be automatically off-limits.

But Gottman’s work also points toward other essential ingredients for enlightened arguing, including:

  • Using emotional literacy to put your feelings into words.
  • Empathizing, validating, and expressing understanding.
  • Asking open-ended questions that encourage cooperation and personal disclosure.
  • Prompting your partner or counterpart to tell stories with phrases like “Tell me about…” or “What do you think about…?”

When we use these skills, conversations transform from confrontational to honest and safe.

Applying Appreciative Inquiry

Traditional conflict-resolution approaches take a “fix it” approach that looks at what’s going wrong, what’s broken, and where our relationships are lacking. But continuing to focus on the negative is demotivating and slows growth.

Luckily, modern change-management thinking offers a different approach with a methodology known as appreciative inquiry. This is a philosophy rooted in recognizing the best in people and focuses on what’s working well in an effort to amplify and replicate it. Instead of ruminating on weakness and downfalls, appreciative inquiry encourages us to reframe conflict as a chance to lean into our individual and collective strengths with the 4-D cycle:

  1. Discovery: Asking what’s working best, what you value, and what’s important.
  2. Dream: Questioning what’s possible and what might be.
  3. Design: Putting together a vision for the future or a plan of action.
  4. Destiny: Examining how you can continue to improve.

Appreciative inquiry is “infinitely transferrable” and has been broadly applied to complex conflicts within hostile or volatile environments, whether people are navigating a breakup, resolving disputes among teammates, or dealing with differing political opinions to get a better outcome.

Conflict is an inevitable part of life and any relationship. Today, as negativity and discord permeate so much of our culture, it’s essential that we refine our communication skills and develop our self-awareness and emotional agility. By watching for our own biases, finding shared ground, and taking action to solve differences in new and different ways, we can move back toward greater civility.

Melody Wilding

Written by

Career & executive coach for sensitive high achievers. Human Behavior prof. Get the free guide thousands use to manage emotions at work: melodywilding.com/guide

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