What Does It Mean to Win an Argument?
September 11, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, has been in the news lately. An excerpt, via The Independent, suggests the focus of most of the reports:

“We were on a small stage and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.”

“He,” of course, is Donald Trump. We could perhaps disagree about the effectiveness of his debate tactics. He may have lost the vote, but he won the election. Rather than rehash that, however, I’d like to suggest that we all stop pretending that presidential debates are an exercise in communication and recognize them for what they are. 

A debate is a sporting event, and while it poses as a comparison of views or a constructive dialogue, in reality, its primary purpose is entertainment. Note that commentary after a debate is nearly always about who “won,” who “lost,” and how it was done. It’s the same sort of commentary you might see following a prize fight.

But debate is high-class entertainment compared to argument, the demolition derby of pretend communication. Argument occurs in bars, homes, and cable television studios in order to create winners and losers. There is no procedure for deciding the outcome, however, and the “winner” is usually the participant with the loudest or the shrillest voice. An argument usually continues until one side gives up or it’s time to cut to a commercial. And if you ask more than one spectator who won the argument, that question itself usually produces an argument. 

Argument cannot persuade. Losing an argument does not cause the emotional reversal we recognize as persuasion; it simply alters the form of the loser’s resistance, converting it to humiliation, resentment, determination, or anger. Most people will not acknowledge the loss of an argument, and those who do will usually qualify it: “You win, but I’m not convinced.”

Everyone in business is familiar with the phenomenon of the winner who doesn’t win. This is the person who forces a recommendation on an organization by “winning” an argument. Inevitably, however, the “losers” nurse their resentment and never fully embrace the recommendation or continue doing things the old way anyway. The result is usually far more punishing for the winner and the recommendation itself than losing the argument would have been. 

In many ways, persuasion is the antithesis of argument. Where argument is all about using logic, reasoning, or intimidation to “win,” persuasion is all about raising someone’s receptivity to an idea and then helping them find a way to embrace it. You do this partly by modeling your commitment to and passion for the idea and partly by showing the other person how they will benefit from adopting your point of view. To persuade someone is to make a sale. The persuaded person may not pay in money, but there’s always a cost to giving up a position, point of view, or attitude with which you’re comfortable. Your job, as a communicator, is to show the other person that the new position, point of view, or attitude is worth the cost. You can’t do that with argument, or even debate.