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The psychology of arguments (2): Get better at arguing

11. April 2016 in
better at arguing

In our last article we told you why it is so hard to argue in a constructive way. Today, we want to draw some conclusions that help you to be better prepared for the next argument.

But first, let’s look at the insights from our last article:

  • Fighting puts you in a state of stress. This, in turn, interferes with your ability to analyze, reason and be creative. In short: The stress during a fight makes you somewhat dumb.
  • Anger makes it even worse. It makes you more likely to resort to blaming, stereotyping and thumb-rules. Which means: Anger makes you even dumber and considerably more insufferable.
  • Nobody likes changing their mind. And if someone has a really good counterargument? Then you are quite likely to decide they’re an idiot (or find some other explanation) so that you can remain confident about your sets of belief.

So in fight mode – especially when you are stressed and angry – , you tend to be neither very likable nor particularly fit for finding a compromise. However, this doesn’t mean that you’re sentenced to unsolved conflicts and frustrating quarrels. Now that you know the effects that put the success of an argument at danger, you can act accordingly. Let’s make sure that your future arguments are going to be constructive.


1. Prepare for arguments

Since the stress and/or anger during a fight can distort your reasoning, good preparation makes the difference. Ideally, you have prepared your position, your arguments and the outcome you wish to achieve before the actual discussion. A quarrel in which you don’t really know what you want is going to be tedious. And trying to figure this out in the heat of the argument – with all the stereotyping and blaming mechanisms at work – is a lot harder than during some calm time alone.


2. Stay calm and reduce threats

Timing is not only important because you want to be prepared for a fight. It is also part of choosing the right time, place and circumstances in which you address a problem. Now that you have seen the effect stress and anger have on an argument, you should be keen on keeping those emotions low. For yourself, this is all about preparation and the ability to control your feelings. In order to keep your counterpart calm, it is important not to threaten or injure them in any way. This can mean a lot: Not starting the debate at the wrong time or in front of the wrong people. Never getting personal. Being patient. Showing you want to improve the situation for everyone. And so on.

Sometimes, people advise you to share your feelings in an argument. This advice should be treated with caution. It is true that, especially in a relationship, it is important to talk about your emotions. Not only because they often matter in conflicts. But also since this can reduce the risk to insult your counterpart – when, instead of making broad claims about the person, you talk about how they make you feel. “I don’t feel respected when you keep checking your smartphone during our conversation” is less of a threat than “You don’t respect me”.

Nevertheless, indiscriminately revealing your feelings might do the opposite. Especially if you share strong feelings without an explanation for them, this might be perceived as an attack impossible to fend off. And a cornered opponent tends to get stressed as well as angry.


3. Listen and let the other one explain

Active listening and interest for the other person’s viewpoint has several benefits. It is one of the best ways to show respect and create a non-threatening environment. But at the same time, having someone explain their opinion is one of the most promising ways to change this opinion. How so?

People usually think they understand things a lot better than they actually do. They confuse being familiar with something with understanding it. This is called the illusion of explanatory depth. Imagine I asked you: Do you know how a fridge works? You may be quick to say ‘yes’ because fridges are so familiar to you. However, once I start digging deeper about the details, you might start to flounder. The same can happen when you ask people to explain what they believe in, in detail. An experiment has shown, for example, that people are more likely to get doubts about a policy they support if they have to explain how it works. This actually is more likely to give them second thoughts than good counterarguments. Why? Probably because it makes people realize that they don’t know as much as they thought. Like that, they are more likely to review their opinion.


We hope that our tips are useful for your next discussion. Or even help to settle a conflict before it becomes real fight. – because now you know even better why you don’t like them.



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Susanne Krause

About the Author

Susanne Krause
Researcher and author. As a graduate of psychology and philosophy as well as an experienced journalist, she knows not only where to find the information but also how to put it into words best.

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