Most conflict tends to be spontaneous, often emotionally charged and usually trivial – that’s why we can’t always remember how they started or what they were about. This is rarely the case in a business context. Winning an argument shouldn’t be left to chance.
Success is down to careful planning and picking your moment. Just remember that there are two elements to winning an argument: “making” the argument and “taking” it. Lots of good arguments fall on deaf ears, so it is vital that your opponent takes it in. When you’re thinking about making the argument, you need to be clear what you want to achieve and what you might be prepared to concede to get the right result. You can only really assess the likelihood of your opponent taking your argument if you know them.
Knowing your opponent is not as obvious as it might first appear. You should know not just the strength of their arguments, but what is motivating them to make them. You also need to think about what makes them tick. Empathy is not a weakness. It is a vital skill to help shape the content and delivery of your arguments.
If you do not know your opponent well enough to gauge whether they will accept your arguments, then do your homework. Understand their business, not just what they do, but how they do it. Do you share the same core values? Are you able to find common interests or connection points to weave into your arguments? Once you’re clear on that, you should be better placed to go about winning an argument.
As with the preparation, the timing is crucial. If you intend to meet your opponent, make sure you allow sufficient time to make your arguments and counter your opponent’s.
Your arguments might be strong, but don’t forget the science (not art!) of persuasion. Remember what you’ve learnt about your opponent. Showing a level of understanding and empathy in a confrontational situation can be disarming. It also gives you a better chance of keeping in control of your desired outcome.
Tone of voice is crucial when it comes to winning an argument too. Our brains are naturally wired to detect threats, and when we feel threatened, we become less responsive. You have a better chance of convincing your opponent that you are right if your opponent is open to what you are saying and is listening. The more you raise your voice, the more likely you’ll lose your argument.
Emotions can be good provided you don’t let them get the better of you. Try to keep balanced and your arguments will sound more objective. Only inject passion when the timing is right to do so otherwise the desired impact will be lost.
Try not to repeat yourself. Few arguments are strengthened by repetition. But above all else, listen to your opponent. It is tempting to want to get your point across first, but in doing so, there is a danger that your opponent doesn’t absorb it because they are thinking more about what they want to say rather than listening to the merits of your arguments. Ironically, silence can be the most powerful weapon in your armoury.
You can learn more about your opponent while they argue themselves out of breath. This can give you valuable time to take stock and calibrate your arguments, preferably referencing what your opponent has said, and demonstrating that you’re taking their points on board whilst advancing your own your arguments.
Finally, don’t fall foul of the temper trap of wanting the last word. Having the last word can fuel your ego but doesn’t always win the argument. Allow your opponent time to reflect on your arguments. It is also satisfying when your opponent believes they have won the argument which you had already planned to concede – sacrificing a pawn for ‘check mate’!
Andrew Brown is partner and commercial disputes lawyer at Cardiff and London based law firm, Capital Law