Published November 08, 2012
It was lunchtime and the seven of us — two kids and five adults — would be in the car for the next three hours as we drove from New York City to upstate Connecticut for the weekend.
We decided to get some takeout at a place on the corner of 88th and Broadway. I pulled along the curb and ran in to get everyone's orders.
In no time, Isabelle, my eight year old, came running in the restaurant.
"Daddy! Come quick! The police are giving you a ticket!"
I ran outside.
"Wait, don't write the ticket, I'll move it right away," I offered.
"Too late," she said.
"Come on! I was in there for three minutes. Give me a break."
"You're parked in front of a bus stop." She motioned halfway down the block.
"All the way down there?" I protested.
She said nothing.
"You can't be serious!" I flapped my arms.
"Once I start writing the ticket, I can't stop." She handed me the ticket.
"But you didn't even ask us to move! Why didn't you ask us to move?" I continued to argue as she walked away.
And that's when it hit me: arguing was a waste of my time.
Not just in that situation with that police officer. I'm talking about arguing with anyone, anywhere, any time. It's a guaranteed losing move.
Think about it. You and someone have an opposing view and you argue. You pretend to listen to what she's saying but what you're really doing is thinking about the weakness in her argument so you can disprove it. Or perhaps, if she's debunked a previous point, you're thinking of new counter-arguments. Or, maybe, you've made it personal: it's not just her argument that's the problem. It's her. And everyone who agrees with her.
In some rare cases, you might think the argument has merit. What then? Do you change your mind? Probably not. Instead, you make a mental note that you need to investigate the issue more to uncover the right argument to prove the person wrong.
When I think back to just about every argument I've ever participated in — political arguments, religious arguments, arguments with Eleanor or with my children or my parents or my employees, arguments about the news or about a business idea or about an article or a way of doing something — in the end, each person leaves the argument feeling, in many cases more strongly than before, that he or she was right to begin with.
How likely is it that you will change your position in the middle of fighting for it? Or accept someone else's perspective when they're trying to hit you over the head with it?
Arguing achieves a predictable outcome: it solidifies each person's stance. Which, of course, is the exact opposite of what you're trying to achieve with the argument in the first place. It also wastes time and deteriorates relationships.
There's only one solution: stop arguing.
Resist the temptation to start an argument in the first place. If you feel strongly about something in the moment, that's probably a good sign that you need time to think before trying to communicate it.
If someone tries to draw you into an argument? Don't take the bait. Change the subject or politely let the person know you don't want to engage in a discussion about it.
And if it's too late? If you're in the middle of an argument and realize it's going nowhere? Then you have no choice but to pull out your surprise weapon. The strongest possible defense, guaranteed to overcome any argument:
Simply acknowledge the other and what he's saying without any intention of refuting his position. If you're interested, you can ask questions — not to prove him wrong — but to better understand him.
Because listening has the opposite effect of arguing. Arguing closes people down. Listening slows them down. And then it opens them up. When someone feels heard, he relaxes. He feels generous. And he becomes more interested in hearing you.
That's when you have a shot of doing the impossible: changing that person's mind. And maybe your own. Because listening, not arguing, is the best way to shift a perspective.
Then, when you want to leave the conversation, say something like,"Thanks for that perspective." Or "I'll have to think about that," and walk away or change the subject.
I'm not saying you should let someone bully you. This weekend I was in a long line and someone cut in front of me. I told him it wasn't okay and he started yelling, telling me — and the people around me — that he was there all the time, which was clearly not true. I began to argue with him which, of course, proved useless and only escalated the fight.
Eventually a woman in the line simply drew a boundary. She said, "No, it's not okay to simply walk in here when the rest of us are waiting" and she stepped forward and ignored the bully. We all followed her lead and, eventually, he went to the back of the line.
Arguments: 0. Boundaries: 1.
When I went online to pay the parking fine, I tried to dispute the ticket. Before arguing my case though, a screen popped up offering me a deal: pay the penalty with a 25% discount, or argue and, if I lose, pay the entire fine. I thought I had a good case so I argued and, a few weeks later, lost the case.
Next time, I'm taking the deal.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This article was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.