Communication Skills

Why winning an argument is counter-productive to success and what you can do

It was clear that the participant was in distress. When asked to pick the one most important value, she just couldn’t. Fortunately, the experienced instructor knew better than to try to argue with her – yes, you can, no I can’t, yes you can. Instead, she worked hard to win over her the participant by making her feel safe enough to consider the possibility that yes, she could.

Whether it’s a training class, two colleagues not seeing eye-to-eye (as if that ever happens!), or a parent with a teenager, when we try to push our will on another, we tend to lose big time. Winning an argument might feel so good in the moment but it’s rarely the best answer. Far better than a focus on WAA (winning an argument) is WOO – winning others over.

Here are 2 ways to step back and WOO:

-Step back. Help the other person feel (authentically) safe and smart. Find something you can agree with and begin the conversation with that safety:

To the participant: Lakesha, you’re right, it is difficult to choose just one value. And, here is how some people make the choice… is that helpful to you?

vs: Lakesha, everyone else can do this, why can’t you?

To your colleague: John, I respect what you’re saying about wanting to keep your ear buds in so that you’re not distracted by all the office noise. Because we sit next to each other, I hear your music too and that becomes my distraction. I’m wondering if there’s anything we can do to make sure that you can stay focused and not be distracted by everything happening around you, and that I can have the quiet I need to stay focused too.

vs: John, your music is driving me crazy. Would you turn that damn thing off?

-Step back and use “contrast”. Tell the person what you don’t want them to worry about happening – and then what they should know will happen.

To your teenager: Farley, I don’t want you to think that I’m going to give up on you. I’m not. I want you to know that I’m sick at heart about what you did, and I’m going to continue to love you through it all. I’m not going to expect you to never see your friends again. I am going to expect that we’ll talk about this when we’re both calmed down to figure out a way for us to live together as a family…

vs: Farley, you and I are going to work this out even though what you did stinks and I’m mad as hell.

Stepping back enables the other person to hear you. Instead of focusing on answering you back (and not in a good way!) or pushing back, the other person is more likely to open up to the possibility you’re offering.

If you want to see this in action, watch this amazing clip of Fred Rogers as he disarms the very hostile Senator John Pastore. See how the late Mr. Rogers steps back to move forward.

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