Rhetoric used to be an art. Philosophers would weave elegant tapestries of argument, persuading people through short, leading questions designed to exploit ignorance. Then, when a weakness was exposed, the sages would lead the green disciples to the desired conclusion by their own lines of reasoning. The gift of argument was a treasure.
These days, an argument is something you have with your spouse, typically over banal subjects, like why the milk was left out all day or whose job it is to change the litter box. Outside the courtroom, arguments are synonymous with fights. They’re undesirable, usually because people fear losing them — as if being wrong means eternal dumbness. The truth is, winning an argument can (and should) be a display of mental finesse. It marks the start of a march toward progress. And the upside? Anyone can do it.
Building the Foundation
Arguments are appeals to reason, with sprinklings of emotion and passion, used to persuade an audience about a topic. Sometimes this is a group of people; most often it’s one person. The fewer the people the better because tailoring your argument is just as important as choosing the argument in the first place. The well-worn phrase “Known your audience” isn’t just hot air; it instills in your argument a sense of purpose, a direction.
Consider the ancient tactics employed by Aristotle, ones which still have great psychological backing. A master rhetorician, Aristotle deployed three methods of appeal: pathos, logos, and ethos. These three appeals to reason serve to “unlock” some deep-seated doubt or skepticism in the arguer’s audience by drawing upon a particular way of forming opinions.
Pathos refers to an appeal to emotion. As an arguer, you want your opponent to empathize with the point you’re trying to make. The 16-year-old pleading for his parents to let him borrow the car may find success in pulling his parents’ heartstrings: “Think of the trust we’d be building if you let me take the mini-van for a spin.” But be wary of pushing the pathos too far; sincere emotion can turn to buttering-up in a hurry.
On the other end is logos, an appeal to logic. Maybe your parents would be more likely to surrender the car for the night if you presented them with your driving record, or the latest statistics showing teen driving fatalities have decreased over the years (It’s true, they have.) Knowing your audience means knowing whether they like hard numbers to chew on or gentle doses of reassurance. But the reality is, convincing someone of something begins with you knowing yourself as the arguer.
That’s where ethos, the third mode of persuasion, comes in. This appeal to reason literally means “character,” and it reflects the arguer’s own credentials. People need to find legitimacy in an argument if they’re ever to believe its message is reasonable, let alone true. At base, this means asserting yourself as knowledgeable. How are you qualified to talk on this subject? Why should anyone care?
How to Win
These prescriptions only set the foundation. Actually engaging in the argument must expound upon these templates. For this, psychology has many offerings. The human brain is hard-wired for emotions, logic, reason, numbers, and patterns. The beauty of rhetoric, in its ancient quest to convince, managed to uphold them all without any science to speak of.
Emotions, for instance, are a powerful tool for argument. While exploiting some, like fear and panic, would be manipulative, others, like a sense of play or vigilance, according to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp in Affective Neuroscience, can be used for nobler pursuits. These emotions come standard with your basic human brain, and the better you can recognize them in your opponent’s preoccupations, the more convincing you’ll be.
If you’re less inclined to tap into someone’s neural circuitry, consider the universal responses that have become hard-wired in us over millions of years of evolution. For example, one 2013 study found making eye contact during an argument makes your opponent less likely to be persuaded. It runs contrary to much of what our culture tells us about assertiveness, that looking people in the eye and shaking hands firmly are the keys to dominance. But dominance isn’t what you’re after. It’s cooperation.
“When animals make eye contact, it’s usually prior to a dominance contest,” Julia A. Minson, study author and a social psychologist, told The Washington Post. Eye contact is very intimate, and only reserved for certain circumstances, she added. “Dogs aren’t going to look each other in the eye unless they’re about to fight.”
With that said, showing weakness also isn’t desirable. If anything, you want to find yourself somewhere in the middle, and preferably at a similar state as your opponent. A raft of studies have found that mirroring techniques — copying a person’s body language, and even their speech patterns if you’re crafty enough — foster feelings of rapport and comfort. People feel at ease when they are confronted with the familiar. It can become slimy (think try-hard salespeople), but if used effectively can also make for remarkable changes.
With Great Power…
We may be wired to think in terms of numbers and emotions and logic, but we also have to keep in mind that understanding human psychology doesn’t give us license to exploit it. What we don’t want is argument turned to manipulation, reason turned to propaganda.
The brain may be powerful, but it’s imperfect. Sometimes emotions get the best of us, and a gentle conversation quickly escalates into a full-fledged fight — all over who forgot to put away the two percent or give Fluffy a clean bathroom. This type of information also arms us. We can be more effective listeners, better-abled to wade through the rhetoric and find a kernel of truth that moves us toward social progress — or, at the very least, get us bickering a little bit less.