Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate, 1960

There’s this scene in Thank You for Smoking where the protagonist, a lobbyist and PR hack for big tobacco, is teaching his son how to argue (video below). As an example lures him into a debate over chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, and then segues into a digression about freedom, choice, and liberty. When his son objects that his father hasn’t convinced him of anything, his father explains that he wasn’t trying to convince his son of anything, but was focused on winning over their audience.

My point is that, most of the time, arguing or debating something with someone is kind of pointless. The fact that the person is bothering to argue with you usually means that they’ve already made of their mind. To them, it’s an open and shut case, and their only goal is to exert their will over you and bring you around to their way of thinking. They can’t do that if they’re going to be open-minded to your point of view, so beyond trying to anticipate their arguments, they’re probably not going to be willing to see things your way.

So the best you can do is go after your audience. These people may or may not have their mind made up, yet, but they’re passively involved in the argument. They’re not as rigid in their mindset because they’re spectators. They’re listening to and watching the both of you partly out of boredom, but partly to see who comes out on top. And there are two ways you can do that: (1) by making your opponent seem more or less pusillanimous in some way, and/or (2) by yourself appearing more or less magnanimous in comparison.

But what if it’s your opponent you have to convince? What if they’re your boss or your partner or your client, and your life is going to continue to suck unless you bring them around to your way of thinking? Then what do you do?

Well, actions speak louder than words. In the The 48 Laws of Power, Law #9 urges you to “Win Through Your Actions, Never Through Argument.” As author Robert Greene elaborates:

Any momentary triumph you think gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion. It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.

You see, when you win through argument, either your opponent cedes to the popular opinion you’ve won over from the audience, or they stew on being outwitted until they think up new arguments and angles to hold against a decision that can’t be undone. Either way, you’ve bruised their ego and and have offended them.

But if you can find a way to win them (or the audience) through your actions, you’ve given them a tangible reason to come around to your way of thinking. By virtue of winning through you actions, you’ve proven that your methods work.

Granted, your methods might cease to work at some point in the future, but that’s okay. Things change, and no one can hold it against you that you were right about something in the past. It’s just that things have changed or evolved and it’s now time to go back to the drawing board and think up something new.

So if you’re stuck in a situation where you’re having trouble convincing someone to go a certain route, and you’re really certain that it’s the way to go, just do it. Go ahead on your own time or money and get it done. If the results are there, they’ll see them and come around to your way of thinking.

But if you’re not willing to go out on that limb and risk your neck to prove your point, then drop it. Either you’re not that sure that you’re right, or you don’t care enough about whatever it is for it to matter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *