How To Win An Argument In 3 Easy Steps


Tuesday, 2:57pm
Reno, NV
Mongo just pawn in game of life.” (Blazing Saddles.)


Recently, I published a series of posts on Facebook under the theme “How To Win An Argument”. Over the week it ran, there was a vast and animated flurry of comment and interaction — the posts hit a nerve.

Fortunately, because that series got so much traction in Facebook, I decided to gather them and post the series here in the blog, so they’ll go into the archives (and thus can be easily accessed by anyone interested). I say “fortunately”, because apparently Zuckerberg and his evil Facebook henchmen decided that all my January posts before the 20th (which included the argument series) needed to vanish from the face of the earth (and the virtual earth that is social media).  Poof. They’re gone. No explanation, no way to get them back (though I’ve been searching for tips and asking for help from colleagues — there are a lot of videos out there pretending to have the secret of restoring “lost” posts, but they don’t work).

I’m kinda stunned… but glad I’d already copied and pasted those initial posts here. I’m doing the same with other FB posts from the past — just getting them copied into a Word doc, in case Zuck goes berzerk again. Jeez Louise, you probably need to take the same precautions if you have valuable posts you don’t want to lose.

So, Lesson #1: Do not trust Facebook to archive anything. The joint is crawling with post-devouring demons or something.

I’m not saying that everything I post there needs to be carved in stone. But I do write some cool shit on my wall, occasionally. It’d be nice if it remained there.

Anyway, below is a mildly-edited collection of that series on winning an argument. I didn’t save the dozens and dozens of comments, and that’s a shame — it was a great thread, full of other lessons. For example: The easiest way to get a whole bunch of folks frothing is to talk about (a) sex, or (b) their belief systems. They go nuts. As you’ll see below, I just laid out my views on how to handle people who want to argue and how to define “winning” for yourself… and that just pissed off some folks. Even discussing arguing inflamed their knee-jerk need to argue. Humorous, ironic, and illustrative of how whacko human beings can be. Also, as a marketer, informative — especially if you want or need to introduce some form of argument or alternative view into your advertising.

And, yes, this entire series is very much aimed at marketers. Great ads seldom argue, though they may be pushing buttons right and left. The psychology is subtle, but awesome.

So, without further ado, here’s that series. Love to hear your comments… which will all go safely into the blog archives, where Zuckerberg can’t touch them:

How To Win An Argument, Step 1: The primary rule is simple — never argue back, when your goal is persuasion.

No one, in the history of humankind, has ever changed their mind because of an argument. When cornered (logically or physically), humans dig in and will sacrifice wealth, health and dignity before admitting they’re wrong. They WILL change their minds, but not because you demolished their belief system with crap like logic and debate moves. They change because of an internal epiphany that is akin to death/rebirth.

So, Rule #1: If you want to “win”, never engage in an argument.

[My comment, mid-way through the fray in the Facebook comment section: “Interesting that several comments here reveal a complete misunderstanding of how to win an argument. I guess this little tutorial is needed. There are also several pro’s commenting here who truly do get what I’m talking about, and I appreciate the specific tips they’re sharing. Negotiation and persuasion are NOT part of our default equipment, folks…”]

How To Win An Argument, Step 2: Now you need to DEFINE what “win” means to you.

Is it to persuade the person you’re up against? That’s gonna require some deft moves (which we’ll discuss later).

Often, however, there may be an audience you want to persuade — so you’re actually playing to the crowd. (Give your opponent enough rope to hang himself, win the meta-discussion.) Or, you may be genuinely interested in other points of view (or acquiring intel on how the opposition operates).

Traditional arguing is just a shouting match with childish rules (first one to cry or leave loses). Not engaging the argument doesn’t necessarily mean splitting, though — you really need to understand WHY you’re in this situation, and what you want out of it.

This simple moment of defining your goal will help you with every single subsequent decision. (“Art Of War” aficionados — and chess players — will happily lose every single battle up to the last one, for the victory. But you need to know what “victory” means for you. Being stubborn — the first clue you’re dealing with a rookie — may win the immediate round, but ruin all future moves.) Step 3 tomorrow…

[My comments in the fray for Step 2: “Once you get your Zen game on, coming up against someone who uses stubbornness as their main tactic will become a moment of joy (and easy, quick victory)…”

“BTW: If just shutting him up is your goal, mockery works best. I don’t recommend this, cuz it can lead to fisticuffs. You ‘win’ by shutting him down, but ‘lose’ by having teeth knocked out. Mockery works as a reframing tool — you discern the ape-brain fear behind his anger, and turn the conversation on that. The focus instantly becomes his fear and his reaction to being mocked over it. Few humans can avoid sputtering and regressing to infantile states when their deepest shame is publicly ridiculed. Very, very dirty trick, and probably you deserve whatever happens next if you use it…”

“Important: Being ‘armed’ with tactics that win is a huge responsibility. It’s like becoming skilled at martial arts, and you ARE responsible for the consequences of superior firepower. This is why knowing your goal is so critical.”

“Don’t get distracted by recent situations you’ve been in, guys. This is all pretty simple — for an easier life, and better marketing tactics, don’t argue… and get clear on what you consider a ‘win’. It can be win-win, win-lose, or no-play (or any of many other results). The key is to be conscious, not get sucked into time/energy-wasting exercises in futility, and to further your own goals…”

How To Win An Argument, Final Step: Okay, you realize that arguing isn’t persuasion, and you’ve defined what you want out of the situation. This is equal to (a) a reality check (so you stop doing what doesn’t work)… and (b) goal setting — the fundamentals of growth.

Next, you use the tools that DO work — which just happen to be the same tools great salesmen use to persuade skeptics to buy. You disarm anger, reframe the context (so you’re not wallowing in the stuck-in-one-place psychological wastelands that stubborn people like to fight in), and “come in through a side door” (as old school salesmen like to say).

You don’t engage head-on, you ignore irrationality, and because you’re so clear on your goal, you take your ego out of it. Use the old improv theater tactic of never being negative yourself — say “Yes… AND…” while moving things toward the discussion you actually want to have.

If you’ve ever been in the presence of a master negotiator, break down what happened. Resistance was soothed, bonding occurred, and you likely found yourself moving off your position and agreeing with him… even if you began on opposite sides.

In short… you “win” an argument by reframing what “win” means, so that you exit the nobody-wins context of belligerence (keeping your ego out of it), and use your salesmanship chops to find common ground, bond, navigate the mostly-unconscious landscape of your opponent (to avoid hot buttons while simultaneously teasing his positive emotional needs)… and relentlessly and patiently move toward your goal (whatever that is).

This is why great salesmen live better lives. They understand human behavior, so they always know what’s “really” going on, and they have skills to consciously persuade or redirect even irrational, emotionally-discordant folks to a better place. Where good things can occur.

At the very worst, you will never feel the angst of having gone through a useless shouting match (cuz you have self-permission to disengage at any time, since a “win” for you should include not feeling your blood pressure go up a single notch). And by realizing that a classic argument is almost never about what it looks like it’s about on the surface, you can control where the situation ends up.

So, take your ego out of it, define your desired results in terms of reality, and be a good salesman.

Make sense?


And that’s the series, folks.

On Facebook, part of the charm is keeping all posts relatively brief. I gave up on Twitter, because while I could craft nice 140-character posts, it was just too short to get any substance across. I could have never shared 3 lessons on winning an argument like this.

In the grand scheme of social media (which keeps mutating), Twitter is like walking quickly through a raging party, and catching snippets of conversations around you. You blink, you miss out. Facebook is more like stopping to have a conversation with someone for a few minutes, and you maybe are joined by others while you chat. Blogs remain the only medium similar to a book — there is no limit (or even an expected limit) on length, subject or presentation… plus you get the interactive element of the comments section.

I enjoy the immediacy of Facebook, and the way I can be playful or serious, and not feel like I’m writing anything for posterity. (And, apparently, Facebook returns the favor on posterity, deleting posts randomly and on whim.) It really is, for me, like having nice conversations at a damn good party. The blog is where I stretch out and get serious about writing well and delivering lasting lessons.

At any rate, I’m happy the series was salvaged (though the comment threads were not).

You can disagree with me on any or all of these points. Just know that this is insider tips from a veteran sales pro who learned it all the hard way, and honed the skill of persuasion in the front trenches of the real world. My client list has included some of the most stubborn bastards to ever walk the earth. Learning to wrangle them to where I needed conversations to go was essential, and these lessons saved my butt many times.

Love to hear your take on the matter, of course, in the comments section below.

Stay frosty,


P.S. Yes, I updated this a couple of times, after we found the original posts. That’s the beauty of the online publishing world — you can edit on the fly, with no final deadline for printing.


Leave a Comment:

Adrijus G. says January 30, 2013

Oh wow.. really need this. I get into arguments too often.. Recent was with a writer who advocated Authors should do their own book covers only without paying designers at all. I argued that opportunity cost is bigger.. not sure who won yet lol Definitely need to learn 1st point of this stuff.

    John Carlton says January 30, 2013

    I’ve had my own battles with designers over the years. I used to get ’em fired at agencies, when they demanded that I write “little floating bits of copy” that wouldn’t taint their gorgeous ad designs. Still, I was a designer myself once (a bad one, and color-blind to boot, but I know the process), and I DO appreciate the “art” part of selling books. I have a great designer I work with, who really gets what I’m doing. That’s really the main key — find colleagues you can work with. The better you get at your job, the harder it is to find other folks who are just as good in their job… because your standards go up, and you get clearer on what you want.

    There will never be a complete truce between writer and designer (or movie director), but there’s no need for red-faced arguing, either. Find people who care about the final result. In music, you say the guy who cares about the total sound of the band “has Big Ears”… meaning, he understands that his contribution must gel with all the other instruments if the sound is gonna be good. The opposite is the prima donna guitar player who has to be twice as loud as everything else, or Bam Bam the drummer, who loves drowning out all high notes and abusing listeners with cymbal crashes. There’s a perfect place where things gel… in music, and in writing/design.

    Thanks for the note.

      Adrijus G. says January 30, 2013

      I get the point. Copywriting is more important then design but there is no reason why good designer couldn’t design ”around” copy provided. Example would be this salespages:

      Simple, minimal design but it still looks great and doesn’t distract from copy. It also has innovative approach to long-copy I think – multiple pages that feel like articles or newsletter, combined into sequence. Dead simple, pretty brilliant I think.. Great for testing copy too, if you see people bouncing off on certain page you can go in and rewrite it and see how that changes conversions.

      I think it’s great collaboration of designer/copywriter.

Don Schindler says January 30, 2013

John, you are the master here. Thanks for republishing this. I plan on writing my own post about this and, of course, giving you all the credit for making this as clear as a bell. I’ve tried to explain these concepts before and people just look at me weird (or argue with me and then I redirect). Now I’ve got a place to send them to. Keep up the great work.

    John Carlton says January 30, 2013

    Thanks for the note, Don. Being mad (especially when you really just want to feel like you’re “right” and the other guy is wrong, wrong, wrong)… just wastes time and life-force. I am VERY aware of the time I’ve saved through this Zen approach to non-argument… time you don’t get back when you get all bent out of shape in arguments. And hell yeah, send folks here, let ’em get mad at me for challenging their belief systems… happy to do it.

Just Farmers » Lose the Argument, Win The Cause. says February 19, 2013

[…] I came across these posts from John Carlton. I’ve been following John since I had heard an interview with him on (I believe) the […]

Alison M. Gunn, Ph.D. says February 19, 2013

I really applaud some of the things in particular you’re trying to accomplish. When people get very personally involved in “defending” their position, they forget the other person sees their own “side” as just as valid, if not more so. The key to argumentation (unlike ‘arguing’) is finding common ground. This isn’t about agreeing to disagree, nor does it require that you ever agree with the other person. What it requires instead is that you see that there is something you both have in common. Even the most stubborn people usually want *something* you want. To give an example from the news right now, no matter what side you’re on with gun control, both “sides” can admit that no one wants to see children die. That is called finding common ground. After establishing common ground, you have a much better chance of establishing the beginning of good will, and with good will, you can accomplish much more than you ever will by doing your opponent material damage. However, there have been plenty of times when I have such contempt for the other person’s position and inflammatory rhetoric that I just go for the jugular and mock them. At that point, I am done. I have no intention of leaving them alive on the battlefield to face another day. Humiliation does not achieve the moral high ground, I will grant you, but I am not a saint.

Tim says June 8, 2013

Hi John,

As usual, brilliant work. I have only just recently been turned on to your blog and am avidly soaking up past posts, working my way backwards. A couple things. First, I think these tactics are generally wise and applicable to most situations that you might encounter resistence, at the least, and vitriol in more severe cases. What I am interested in, on the other hand, is something a little more specific. It takes just as much finesse as subtle force (subtle bludgeoning?), expertise and knowledge as it does well delivered application. In your experienced oppinion, how would you go about the following: defining “win” to mean, coming out on top as “correct,” the other not only ends up agreeing with your superior knowledge, logic (whatever) and at once feels profoundly stupid, lowly, and shameful for even challenging you to begin with (a variation on just getting them to shut up). For this, the goal is not to use mockery, but to blatantly outwit, outtalk, and outmaneuver the other, so that they can percieve no other option but to submit. Just a question to see if you have ever encountered any experience with this, or have any advice about how to cultivate this art.

I am very appreciative to your contribution. Your “smack-to-the-face” wake up calls have been very helpful to me, and forced me to reevaluate a number of things. Currently in a turbulent situation, but that’s where you make things happen most effectively, I’ve found.

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