“…I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it.” – Dale Carnegie
I’m not saying, and nor was Dale Carnegie, that you should be a pushover or some weak-willed jellyfish. But there is an obvious difference between having a disagreement and having an argument. If you believe something and someone else believes something else, you shouldn’t change your mind unless that person persuades you. But that doesn’t mean you need to argue with them.
Instead, if someone disagrees with you, the only way the possibly convince him or her is not to argue. I would define arguing as criticizing someone’s position. If you attack their position, the natural response is to defend that position. Once a person has aligned themselves with a position so much so as to defend it, the person and the position begin to blur. You are no longer criticizing the position, you are criticizing the person. You are not going to persuade someone they are a bad person, but that is effectively what you are trying to do even if you don’t know it. Everyone is the hero of their own story; it would be wise to remember that.
So how do you approach disagreements? Let me illustrate the difference between arguing and working out a disagreement with an example. My brother is the property manager for our company and has become an expert in tenant relations. Immediately after he took over as property manager, a lawsuit for $3500 was dropped on his desk. It came from a tenant who had just been evicted. She claimed that several maintenance items had been left unfixed and as a result, some of her property was damaged. We had tried to repair these items when she first brought them to our attention, but she had changed out the locks (which is not allowed in the lease) and we had had trouble getting ahold of her. Then our previous manager let it fall to the back burner. The tenant refused to pay (at least so she said) and then an eviction was filed.
This cluster of mistakes was in the past though. So my brother had to deal with things as they stood. He finally got ahold of her and my brother did was the great negotiating book Getting to Yes suggested, “Separate the people from the problem.” (Pg. 10)
He started off as follows,
“I know you’re mad about what happened. I haven’t dealt with this situation so I’m a little in the dark. Please tell me what happened from your point of view.”
Friendly and validating without conceding anything. She explained all of her grievances. In fact, this was the first time my brother had even heard that she claimed to withhold rent because of maintenance problems.
Now at this point, my brother could have attacked her reasoning: “We sent out our maintenance guy twice, you didn’t answer our calls, you put a lock on our door in violation of the lease,” etc. Or he could have made it easy for himself and simply said, “Please sue us and make my life a living hell.” They’re all the same.
Remember, arguing is useless.
Instead, my brother got on her team. He was the good guy. There was a bad guy in this case, which was some combination of the past and the previous manager. Other times it might be the lease or the law.
“I can’t change the past, so we should find the best way to move forward,” my brother said. Then her concerns and fears started coming out: she didn’t have much money, she didn’t have a new place to live and it was hard to find one with an eviction on her record.
Always listen. We spend so much time talking we forget to listen. And no one listens in an argument. In this case, her supposedly damaged property was not among her concerns.
After learning what was bothering her, my brother responded,
“OK, well it looks like what you really want to do is move on and find a new quality place to live, and I think I can help you come up with the best solution for your situation. You can continue to sue us, that’s an option. I think it would be better to try and work something out, though”
She probably held most of the responsibility for what happened, but she also had the right to be upset. To say that suing us was a stupid idea is to call her stupid, no matter what euphemism you use. Remember, in an argument people dig in. They start to identify their own self-worth with the position they are defending.
What my brother’s approach did was put him on her side and validate her opinion even if there was a disagreement. Indeed, in some ways they were on the same side, she would have probably lost the lawsuit and got nothing. And no one ever wins by being sued. The time and money to defend yourself are simply not worth it.
He offered to pay her back her deposit, write a letter for future landlords explaining the situation and open up the court case to satisfy the judgment and get the eviction off her record. In this case, the deposit was a mere $350.
While this story is about business, you can easily see how this could relate to relationships with your spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends and coworkers. Have you ever worked something out while arguing with your wife or husband? What about your father or mother? Close friend perhaps? There’s no better form of persuasion than yelling at someone.
The only way to get someone to do something, other than force, is to get them to want to do it. If you attack their position, it gets misinterpreted (or correctly interpreted) as attacking that person directly. Thus, your target must dig their heels in to defend their own self esteem (the actual subject of the argument actually doesn’t matter much).
It’s hard to change someone’s mind, but it’s impossible to do it with arguing. But arguing can accomplish some things; it can damage relationships, kill deals, ruin your reputation and other things of that nature.
Arguing is tempting, but futile. Avoid it at all costs.