My family is what you might call politically diverse, with members ranging from real pinko-commie hippies to paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorists—and we're all connected on Facebook. This election year, things among us had gotten pretty acrimonious until my brother, Colin, did something ingenious: he made a pledge to stop talking politics on Facebook. Most of my other family members and I quickly followed suit, and as a result, I not only like my family more, I honestly feel more open to their opinions and ideas. If you're anything like me, you argue because you want to win people over to your side, to be right, to show them the light. But think about it: Does it ever really work? Not for me. Thankfully, research says there's a better way.
#1 Open your mind. A few years ago philosophy scholars Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber wrote a widely disseminated paper on human reasoning and argumentative theory. The gist (italics added below), which we see demonstrated every time candidates debate: “People who have an opinion to defend don't really evaluate [others'] arguments in a search for genuine information but rather consider them from the start as counterarguments to be rebutted.” In other words, if you're too busy trying to push your own POV, you're apt to ignore even the most reasonable evidence and arguments your opponent makes. On the other hand, the researchers write, “in group reasoning experiments where participants share an interest in discovering the right answer, it has been shown that truth wins.” Truth. Yeah, I could go for that.
#2 Have hope. In the middle of a heated argument, it's tough to picture everything working out well in the end with your opponent. Yet remaining hopeful may actually help that happen, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a personality researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She points to studies of international conflict resolution in embattled places such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East, which have found that when leaders believe peace is possible, that outlook engenders compromise, a willingness to forgive and less retaliation. In short, a sense of hope allows you to think more clearly and to think outside the box, Krauss Whitbourne says. You may not win the dispute, but you might be able to bring it to a fair conclusion.
#3 Change it up. Some arguments may be more about knee-jerk reactions than actual, real disagreement, Krauss Whitbourne says. There are patterns of actions and reactions in relationship “systems” that tend to play out over and over again. “In systems theory, the system tries to maintain dynamic balance,” she notes—so to resolve these kinds of well-worn arguments, we need to break out of the system by thinking and acting in ways we usually would not. Doing or saying the unexpected may feel strange or even fake at first, she says, but “behaving in a way that's counter to what's usual throws the other person off the pattern and thereby allows reframing.”
#4 Try smiling. Defensiveness can derail an argument, sending it into a spiral of pure negative emotion. But a genuine laugh or smile can completely diffuse a tense situation and help turn it around, Krauss Whitbourne says. It has worked for me: I remember a spat I got into with my husband a couple of years ago, where, in the middle of exchanging irritated jabs, I started laughing and just blurted out, smiling but truthful: “I'm just tired of your face! It's always in my face! Gah!” He cracked up, too, and we both realized that we weren't really arguing about anything and just needed some alone time.
It's clear to me now that no matter how strongly I feel about something, the goal of arguing shouldn't be to win at all costs, with intimidation, fact rattling, loud talking, even smack talking. A better, more satisfying end game of any argument is to find some common ground. Then, somehow, everybody wins.