The Esquire Guy's Guide to Defending Your Ideas in an Argument

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Let’s assume that an idea you’ve proposed is being challenged out of the blue. You didn’t come into the meeting expecting to have it out. But here you are. You believe in your idea. You don’t need to “come to an agreement.” You need to champion and persuade. You need to defend. You need to strengthen your argument on the spot. You’re not going to let some rhetorical flourish by somebody less invested than you derail what you’ve been working to achieve.

Keep in mind that when challenged directly, you have freedom from the normal rules of etiquette—freedom to be a little unhinged. And you should exploit that freedom. So, the guidelines for this kind of argument are different from those for a less-fraught argument.

Think of the argument as a war. In the linguistics community there is a general distaste for thinking of arguments this way and using terms like “keep defenses up” and “target weakness.” (See Colby College philosophy professor Daniel Cohen’s TED talk on arguments.) There’s a general distaste for favoring tactics over substance. But this applies to debates (especially political debates). And you’re not having a debate—you’re being sandbagged. So, tactics it is.

Don’t be fair. There isn’t anyone in the room—not your adversary nor your business partner (if, in fact, your partner and your adversary are not the same person) nor the intern in the corner wondering where all this tension came from—who thinks that this level of argumentation is somehow “fair.” No, it’s you vs. the obstacle. And you do what you need to do to get it out of your way. Hyperbole is OK. Indignation is OK.

Here’s a formula to help you set your general tone: Take your level of indignation, add to it whatever tone your current email signature is projecting, subtract 90 percent of your rage, then add the words “With all due respect.”

Let the other person speak. Debate coaches and psychologists say listening is important. And it is. But in a heightened situation, listening isn’t as important as simply not speaking, which makes it seem like you’re listening, even if you’re just staring at the other person’s mouth and wondering if your next cup of coffee should be “Donut Shop Blend” or “Artisan Roast.”

During a meeting, there’s great benefit in not speaking. During an argument, not speaking provides an opportunity for your adversary to unintentionally talk everyone out of his or her idea. There are two ways to win: by winning, or by allowing the other person to lose. If they want to talk, let them.

There’s a phrase you should use at least once. No matter how forceful you are, don’t demean the other person’s position. Travis Cochran, head coach at kids’ camp program Capitol Debate San Diego, suggests, “Try this simple rhetorical parry: ‘That’s a good point. However …’ This is the debater’s ace in the hole. You validate the idea, but also put it in a box—and then you step on that box to advance your argument.”

Confuse with statistics. In a survey of 4,139 debate coaches, 89.5 percent suggested going easy on stats.* Because, they say, stats are not compelling; stats don’t change minds. But I believe this ignores an important utility of numbers: annoyance and confusion.

Argue the other person’s point for them. An old Esquire relationship tip goes like this: “Preemptively say, ‘I’m sorry, too,’ when in the midst of a vicious argument with a loved one. Works only once per relationship. But it works.”

Consider your idea as your loved one and argue the other person’s side in the middle of arguing for your side. It’s a rhetorical stun grenade. Then once you’ve made their argument for them, dismiss it and return to your own argument.

This technique can be used for a friendly debate, too. William Henderson, co-founder and CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Knock Software, used to swap positions with his partner when they couldn’t come to an agreement. “We would argue the opposite point that we were arguing before. There are two sides to every issue, and, you know, if you’re not getting anywhere with the debate, why not try the other side?”

Don’t lie. This one’s tricky. I’ve written before about using words like always and never. In general, it’s a bad idea, because when you use those words, you are lying. Things are not “always” as you say they are, and it’s not true that something “never” happens. These words don’t just make you lie; they suggest, “I’m all in. I won’t compromise.”

There’s a difference between arguing to win and being obstinate. Words that suggest extreme commitment make you seem intractable, Cochran says: “You seem as if you’re not reasonable or open to interpretation or open to discussion.”

This is a mistake. But it’s a mistake of tone, not words. Tone is the difference between lying (bad) and hyperbole (good). Lying: “This product isn’t good.” Hyperbole: “This product isn’t good. It will not get good. If we renamed this product ‘Good Product’ it would still not be a good product.” Tone.

When you’re arguing to save a great idea, you don’t have to listen too intently, you don’t have to go easy on the anecdotes, you don’t have to choose your words carefully. You just have to curb your indignation and your etiquette at the same time. Most important, you have to believe.

*Entirely made up.

How to Defend Your Ideas in an Argument on Twitter

Step 1: Realize that you will not win the argument.

Step 2: Call your mom. Eat a sandwich. Go outside.

Those are the steps.

You’re not going to win an argument on Twitter because you are arguing with someone who is the kind of person who would argue on Twitter, which is to say: a strident person. These are people for whom an argument is just a forum for aggressive expression and defense of ideas they already have.

“When you start to have a conversation in a medium that’s already designed to truncate what it is that you’re trying to talk about, it’s already designed to be sensationalist,” says Capitol Debate’s Travis Cochran. “You’re not given the time to ramble. You’re not given the time to have dramatic pauses.”

If you decide to use Twitter to make your point, use it in the way it was never intended: in a serial argument over multiple tweets. The long “1/46”-style posts are effective because your argument isn’t compressed. You’re not taking anyone on directly. You’re spelling out a position in a nuanced way—with rhetorical flourishes, peaks and valleys, pauses and rambling. And, most important: time.