Winning arguments

Just tell a good story

I spent an hour on reddit before deciding to finally open my text editor and finish this article that I started a year ago. The virtualization of conversation has created the illusion of facilitating the the process of winning an arguments. Because now like never before, we have the world's knowledge at our fingertips. But, like I said it is an illusion.

"What if I was to look at your children the same way, said the angry man to the hungry lion."

We created a device as complex as the micro-processor but still we are not logical creatures. When there is an arguments on the web ™, we tend to think we can logically guide the community into reason and understanding.

If this was the case, the word argument wouldn't be in the dictionary. Because this word defines two or more creatures that have a disagreement and each tries to logically explain why he is right. A paradox, because only one solution can be right in a logical world. But because we are not logical at all, it is possible for two people with different opinion to be right.

This should end the battle, yet it doesn't. The goal changes from a quest for the truth to a who is right and who is wrong battle. Wikipedia is summoned, the Google is consulted, and one argument overtakes the other.

One is a winner and the other is humiliated. Friendship and trust is lost. This is an argument as defined by its connotation: It is a fight, the truth doesn't matter. Only the louder voice wins.

I might as well name this article how to win an argument and lose people. One thing that I see mostly in arguments between "educated" people is the citing fallacies. If you have to get a quote from the book of fallacies then you probably lost the argument. It's like telling someone, you are wrong because I saw your tactic talked about in a book.

Person one - (redacted long argument about global warming)

Person two - Non sequitur.

It's meta talk. Like masturbation. Do it on your own time away from our eyes.

When you send a link from Wikipedia or a blog you found on the web, then you probably lost. Or even worst, you won the argument. The problem is that by winning the argument you still haven't convinced your opponent.

Facts are a good thing for science. But even science facts can be refuted. Phrenology was called "The one true science of mind" by the respectful scientists of its time. Today we call it a gimmick. Today's science is not going to be immune to the future. Who knows, maybe a hundred years from now, we will view psychology as the embarrassment of our history.

The point here is that facts are not the main drive for convincing. So how do you convince someone?

Stories win people over.

Here is a great story that won me over many years ago. We hear often that a great leader is one that leads by example. But all too often it is uttered by people that show nothing of leadership. Their voice tremble as they speak because they have never experienced all the things that comes with the adage. Unless you are Joel Spolsky.

Pay attention. Here's the way to say "a good team leader provides inspiration by setting a positive example" without putting your audience to sleep:

For a few months in the army I worked in the mess hall, clearing tables and washing dishes nonstop for 16 hours a day, with only a half hour break in the afternoon, if you washed the dishes really fast. My hands were permanently red, the front of my blouse was permanently wet and smelly, and I couldn't take it any more. Somehow, I managed to get out of the mess hall into a job working for a high-ranking Sergeant Major. This guy had years of experience. He was probably twenty years older than the kids in the unit. Even in the field, he was always immaculate, wearing a spotless, starched, pressed full dress uniform with impeccably polished shoes no matter how dusty and muddy the rest of the world was around him. You got the feeling that he slept in 300 threadcount Egyptian cotton sheets while we slept in dusty sleeping bags on the ground.

His job consisted of two things: discipline and the physical infrastructure of the base. He was a bit of a terror to everyone in the battalion due to his role as the chief disciplinary officer. Most people only knew him from strutting around the base conducting inspections, screaming at the top of his lungs and demanding impossibly high standards of order and cleanliness in what was essentially a bunch of tents in the middle of the desert, alternately dust-choked or mud-choked, depending on the rain situation.

Anyway, on the first day working for the Sergeant Major, I didn't know what to expect. I was sure it was going to be terrifying, but it had to be better than washing dishes and clearing tables all day long (and it's not like the guy in charge of the mess hall was such a sweetheart, either!)

On the first day he took me to the officer's bathroom and told me I would be responsible for keeping it clean. "Here's how you clean a toilet," he said.

And he got down on his knees in front of the porcelain bowl, in his pressed starched spotless dress uniform, and scrubbed the toilet with his bare hands.

To a 19 year old who has to clean toilets, something which is almost by definition the worst possible job in the world, the sight of this high ranking, 38 year old, immaculate, manicured, pampered discipline officer cleaning a toilet completely reset my attitude. If he can clean a toilet, I can clean a toilet. There's nothing wrong with cleaning toilets. My loyalty and inspiration from that moment on were unflagging. That's leadership.

See what I did here? I told a story. I'll bet you'd rather sit through ten of those 400 word stories than have to listen to someone drone on about how "a good team leader provides inspiration by setting a positive example."

These are his own words. It's not a research with numbers and facts, maybe it's totally wrong. But one thing you know for sure after reading this story, is the power of leading by example.

Now think about the arguments for climate change. No matter what side you are on, think about the stories that are told through it. Are you convinced about man made climate change because you've seen the cold hard numbers, or because the person who presented it to you was very compelling?

If you all you are trying to do is win arguments, you might win. But you won't convince anyone. With the right story, you might lose an argument, but still win people over.


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