I have been a professional arguer all my life. As a professor of Business Law and Ethics, I employ the Socratic method to help my students refine truth through the crucible of continuous argument. As a pastor, I argued for the cause of Christ every Sunday, and every chance I could between Sundays. Before that, as a lawyer… well that one is kind of obvious.

We all participate in argument every day. We negotiate with our bosses for more money or a better parking space. We wrangle with our professors for extra time on tough projects. We participate in political debates, cultural contentions, and sometimes (sadly) domestic squabbles. Winning fairly at argument can be hard, but over the years I have found three key assumptions that can substantially increase your winning percentage. Try them out, or add your winning strategies in the comments, below.

Assume your opponent must also win.

Winning at argument does not just mean accomplishing your goals. It also means making sure the one with whom you are arguing accomplishes his or her goals. If the purpose of your argument is not only to get what you need but also to take something from your opponent, you have passed to the dark side of argument. Argument is a sharp instrument, and although we may think we are using it defensively, I assure you those on the receiving end rarely experience it that way. They feel they have been attacked. Convincing your opponents that their victory is as valuable as your own can be disarming, and move the argument into very productive territory.

Part of assuming your opponent also needs to win is to acknowledge him or her as a valuable person, made in the image of God, who has real needs and a real purpose on this earth. One cannot love one’s neighbors while simultaneously treating them as objects to be beaten or deprived.

Assume you do not know everything.

To my shame, I cannot tell you how many arguments I have mishandled because I failed to grasp all the facts of the situation (see Proverbs 18:13). Even when I think I have prepared for an argument, I always have the capacity to be surprised. The hard part is that the people who usually surprise me with new facts are… my opponents.

Assume your opponents know things you do not. They may be on the other side of the argument, not because they have conflicting needs or plans, but because they are privy to facts you have not yet heard. We should always enter arguments looking to understand all that our opponents know. What is driving them to argue? What are their assumptions? On what facts do they base those assumptions? A full and common understanding of the facts not only leads to successful argument, it also leads to trust, which can lead to productive relationships for the future.

Assume you will give up and give in.

Some career coaches I have read extoll the practice of preparing for argument by visualizing yourself dominating your opponent. Don’t do that. That approach leads to building emotional barriers in your own head against providing your opponent with what he or she needs. When that happens you fail to optimize the outcomes for both of you because “you didn’t want to appear weak”, or, “you just couldn’t back down as a matter of principle.”

When preparing for an argument, brainstorm all the things you might give to your opponent to help resolve the argument favorably. Minimize what you intend to take from the situation and seek to maximize what you can contribute. Be generous and look for ways to sacrifice to increase the size of the pie. The Lord loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). Don’t be surprised when your opponents do also.

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