20 things you shouldn’t do to win an argument or get your point across in a discussion

I used to work with lawyers. That meant I had regular sparring partners and lively debates. They challenged me to think about my ideas, put them across, deal with counter arguments, and persuade the other person that I was right. Most of the time it was light-hearted fun, and I enjoyed myself. I’m not a lawyer, but I liked the challenge – and sometimes I won!

However, it isn’t fun if you get into situations at work, or even outside of work that become heated. So in this post, I’m going to talk about 20 things that you shouldn’t do if you want to win an argument, or at least maintain a good relationship with the other person.

1. Don’t raise your voice

Nobody likes being shouted at. It’s a form of aggression, shouting the other person down, and the person who shouts the loudest is not always right. Apart from it being an unpleasant experience if someone shouts at you, some people have trouble processing information when it gets too loud around them. It also gives the impression that you don’t have any better arguments, so you have to resort to increasing the volume. It’s like the bully in the playground. Don’t be that person!

2. Don’t refuse to listen and acknowledge the other person’s point of view

Even if you think the other person is completely wrong, if you expect them to listen to you and your arguments, you should pay them the courtesy of doing the same. If someone thinks that you’re just using the time when that they’re speaking to think of your next points, or that you’ve already dismissed any objections to your ideas before the other person has finished speaking, they won’t want to keep talking to you, or listen to your ideas.

This includes saying “I’m not listening to you” or “I’m not listening any more”. It’s as rude as telling the other person to shut up.

If you’ve been over the same old ground, there comes a point where you have to end the discussion, and there are people who think that reiterating the same point will convince you. It’s fine to say that whilst you’ve heard the point, you still don’t agree, or that you respect the other person, but don’t want to go over the same ground again. But when you specifically say that you are not going to listen to them, you risk damaging that relationship and making any future interactions harder.

3. Don’t talk over other people

This is one of my pet hates. It communicates the message that you think what you have to say is infinitely more important than what anyone else has to say. It’s discourteous and won’t make you any friends! Any discussion should involve listening as well as speaking. Some people will get into a competition with you about who’s going to talk, and the volume is likely to go up. Others will withdraw and lose all respect for you because you had poor listening skills. Neither outcome is good for you in the end!

If you can tell that someone wants to speak and they keep getting interrupted, let them have their chance. It’s frustrating when you keep trying to make a point and other people continually jump in first.

4. Don’t assume that everyone with another opinion is wrong or stupid

Sometimes it can be really frustrating if people don’t see the bigger picture, or the obvious flaw to the plan. But maybe there is something in their idea that can be adapted a bit. Maybe with a bit of tweaking it could work. Maybe you just need to explain the problem that you have seen, rather than dismissing the idea outright.

People have so many different communication styles. I personally struggle with people who talk a lot and can’t get to the point, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid.

A stupid argument doesn’t mean that the person is stupid. Maybe they based their opinion on some incorrect information. Maybe you can fix that and the other person will learn something. Maybe you didn’t have all the facts straight!

Even if you do listen to all the evidence and still come to the conclusion that the person isn’t very smart, communicating that you think they’re stupid isn’t likely to make them want to listen to you or see things your way.

5. Don’t make it personal

Ideas can be bad or stupid, but try to focus your language on the idea or the argument, not the person making it. People are more likely to change their opinion if you point out something they hadn’t thought of, than to agree with someone who has just insulted or belittled them.

For example, if you’re in a meeting and you ridicule someone because they did or said something wrong, what will happen the next time you need something from that person, or the next time that you need to work with them? People may forget what you said or did, but they don’t forget how you made them feel.

6. Don’t shut down the conversation when others still want to contribute

As I mentioned before, whilst there may be time pressures that mean you have to move on, for example in a meeting, if people still have something to contribute, try to facilitate that. This is different from allowing someone to go over the same arguments again. If they genuinely have something new to add, and you don’t let them, you may as well say “I’m right, you’re wrong, and I don’t value your contribution enough to even find out what it is”. And who knows, it might have been something really good! You won’t know if you don’t allow people to finish.

People will respond to this situation in different ways. Some will feel offended because you didn’t show interest in their contribution. Others will withdraw and not waste any more time or energy on you or the conversation if you can’t be bothered to listen – that tends to be my go-to reaction. But neither response is good when it comes to meaningful and positive working relationships.

7. Don’t monopolise the conversation

Just because you can, it doesn’t mean that you should. People will get tired of the sound of your voice if you don’t allow others to speak.

8. Don’t keep going past the point when it makes sense

There is a point where someone has to stop a discussion or argument – whether that’s to let everyone cool down, or because it’s become apparent that one or more participants aren’t being constructive any more. Allowing things to continue past this point is futile.

9. Don’t repeat the same thing again and again

It’s boring. If someone wants more information, or something to be explained in a different way, that’s fine. But don’t find 100 ways to make the same point.

10. Don’t make other people feel that their points are not valid

There are times when people argue about things that they have not researched, or have researched badly. This is infuriating if it’s something within your field of knowledge, or something that you know a lot about. However, using something like someone’s age, position, gender, or nationality to win an argument is unfair. If you have to resort to that, it gives the impression that you’ve exhausted any other more meaningful contributions.

If you’ve left someone feeling that you didn’t value them as a person, even if you were right in what you were saying, was it really worth it?

11. Don’t use language or information that other people won’t understand

Maybe you do have a better vocabulary than the person with whom you’re arguing. Maybe you can talk non-stop for a long time using words that the other person would have to look up. But is that really something to be proud of? Don’t try to confuse people with words or terms that they can’t follow. It just gives the message “I’m smarter than you and I don’t have to listen”. Someone who really has a good vocabulary knows how to adapt their language to make it appropriate for their audience.

12. Don’t lose your temper

Sometimes people push your buttons, or they push your patience to the limit. But if you lose your temper, it’s hard to get back your credibility. Also, allowing people to see you showing such strong emotions does make you more vulnerable in future, because people know how they can make you so angry and may try to do it again.

If you can, try to de-escalate the situation or take yourself out of it before you reach boiling point. Do whatever you need to so that you can get away from the person before they make you react in anger or cry. Then you can choose if and when you go back, whether it’s worth continuing the conversation, and whether there is anyone who can help you.

13. Don’t ask too many questions without giving the other person the chance to think or respond

This isn’t fair – partly because moving on to the next question gives the impression that you don’t care about the answer, and partly because some people have difficulty processing multiple questions at once. If someone struggles with multiple questions, talking to them in this way means that you’re setting them up to fail.

14. Don’t be defensive

If you’re talking about something that you feel passionate about, have worked hard on, are self-conscious of, or feel insecure about, one of your first natural reactions may be to respond defensively any time you think someone is criticising you. But not every differing opinion is a personal attack.

15. Don’t make assumptions about what the other person means

Following on from the point about taking things personally, sometimes it’s good to clarify what the other person means before you respond. If you ask them to clarify their point, you’ll get a better idea of their intentions or the thinking behind it. Ok, maybe you’ll find out it was indeed a personal attack – but at least you didn’t base that assumption on your own interpretation of the facts. The best case scenario is that you just misunderstood something, or they misunderstood something, and the problem can be cleared up without it becoming personal.

16. Don’t fill every silence

Some people need a bit of time to process what they’ve just heard, collect their thoughts, and respond. This is sometimes true when people are working in a language that isn’t their native language, but it’s not the only time. Some people do just need a bit more time, whether they’re using their native language or not. If you fill every silence with yet more words, you’re taking away the other person’s right to respond. That’s unfair.

17. Don’t make generalisations

“You always do that!” or “you never get it right” are sweeping generalisations that help nobody. Try to keep things specific. What specifically didn’t you like? Which action didn’t you agree with? Give examples. Don’t just attack someone about what they always or never do.

18. Don’t talk before you know what you want to say

If you go blundering in just so you have people’s attention, but don’t actually know what you’re going to say, it makes the conversation all about you, and not in a good way. I don’t mean you should know exactly which words you’re going to use, but at least think of a point that you want to make before expecting others to listen to you. This point is aimed more at people who dominate conversations and don’t allow others, who may have been waiting a long time, to join in.

19. Don’t ignore the quiet people

There are different reasons for being quiet. Some people are quiet because they use less words and only speak when they have something to add. Some people are quiet because they are shy. Some people are quiet because they don’t want to compete with the loud people all the time – it takes up too much energy. Whatever the reason, those people deserve conversation time too.

20. Don’t forget to ask yourself these questions

What do you want to achieve? Do you want someone to do something, not to do something, or just to hear you out and listen to your opinion?

Is it achievable? If not, is having the argument really the best use of your time?

Is it worth it? Sometimes you can still be right, yet is it worth doing irreparable damage to that relationship because of something that in the grand scheme of things wasn’t that important?

Is there anyone else who could help? I don’t mean you should get a bunch of colleagues to gang up on someone, but maybe there is someone else that the other person would listen to more.

What does the other person respond well to? Solid data? A step-by-step guide on how something will look in practical terms? Peace and quiet so that they can process what you’ve told them? If you want to give it the best chance of success, try to give people what they need.

Do you have any other tips? Let me know in the comments.

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Kirsty working with students

One Comment on “20 things you shouldn’t do to win an argument or get your point across in a discussion”

  1. Reblogged this on Unseen beauty and commented:

    I wrote this for my communication skills series on my business blog, but decided to share it here as well.

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