How do highly successful people argue differently?

A woman and man arguing with each other

When you argue with someone else what would you like to have happen?  Do you argue to win? Do you argue to try and convince the other party that your view is right and theirs is wrong? What do you want to have happen as a result of this argument?  All too often these questions might be how you initiate an argument thinking you are 100% right and the other party is 100% wrong. The question is how successful is it for you to try and win the argument? Did you really convince the other person you were right, and they were wrong, or if you have the power, did you simply bully them into acceptance? Would you like to know a better way?  Read on.


Attitude Regarding an Argument


When you begin to enter into an argument what if you approached this an opportunity to learn and grow. That is quite the mindset change, isn’t it?  A research paper from Yale University found that those that adopted an argument with an attitude to learn and grow did much better in a negotiation than those that were out to win. 

With this simple change in focus to see an argument as an opportunity to learn and grow not only helps with learning new things but helps to land on the best answer and to make others more receptive to your point of view.

Daniel Shapiro at Harvard has a 4 minute and 35 second video on How to Argue. The problem is with the attitude on how to argue. He focuses on identity to consider each other’s values and beliefs, take the time to appreciate them, and then affiliate with each other to work together regarding the concern. 

Don’t talk. Take 10 minutes to listen to the other side.

Share with them what you think they said without judgment. Try to find common ground. How can we work together to meet common interests?


Which attitude? Competitive or Collaborative


Arguing to win is competitive in nature.  Arguing to win is contentious in nature. This compares to collaborative exchanges that allow you to dig deeper and gain a better understanding of the other side and for the other side to gain a better understanding of where you are coming from. Arguing to win sees only one right answer. Arguing to learn allows participants to see several possibilities.

Think about recent arguments you have had with others when you were involved in some hot button issue with someone where you clearly had a polar opposite perspective. You probably dug in to your position and so did the other party. It likely became heated. How well did this work out for you? Did each side demonize the other party? Did anyone convince the other party that they were right? This is the fallacy of arguing to win. Instead argue to succeed.


Arguing to Succeed


To argue to succeed you need to identify your triggers and take action to avoid losing your cool.  Then take actions that will move you towards a best solution with appropriate actions and asking the right questions.

               Beware of Your Triggers and Take Action to Calm Your Triggers

What does that mean? How might you define success? What if you realized that the other party just launched one of your triggers and you are becoming angry? The first step is to recognize your triggers. Here some examples of emotional triggers that may sound familiar to you:

  • A change in your body language
  • A change in your tone
  • A change in eye contact
  • Pacing and fidgeting
  • A clinched fist
  • A clinched jaw

Being aware of your own trigger, you can realize you are being triggered and catch yourself. When you are angry your amygdala floods your blood stream with cortisol, adrenaline, and other chemicals and hormones. In 6 to 10 seconds, you are “flooded” and you lose your cool. However, your prefrontal cortex has the ability to override your amygdala when you realize this happening. Give yourself positive self-talk and use self-distancing by speaking to yourself with your name and coaching yourself to be focused. For example, “Mike, stay cool. Mike, stay focused. Mike, remain calm.” This can help you from losing your cool.

               Implications for Best Solutions

Approach the issue with an openness and willingness to learn sounds hard. That’s because it is. When you are feeling threatened your mind and body want to fight, flee, or freeze.  Keep an open mind and an attitude to learn takes real focus. This allows you to perform better. It allows both parties to work towards a better answer and often the right answer once everyone understands each other.

The key is being willing to listen to understand.

Take this opportunity to clarify your own facts, issues, emotion around these issues, and your interests. Be careful here and really consider where you are coming from. Bo Seo, a debate Harvard champion offers the following ideas

  • It starts with training and practice
  • The format should be agreed upon ahead of time
  • Relationship building with family and personal interactions is critical
  • Expand on your information diet (obtain information from multiple sources)
  • Don’t outsource your information from avatars that tell you what you want to hear
  • Have face to face audiences without an audience

Bo Seo recommends you hit the four primary “W’s”  in any argument

These are:

  • “What’s your argument?
  • Why is it true?
  • When has it happened before?
  • Who cares?”

Matthew Fisher, a psychologist from Southern Methodist University recommends this advice for most workplace disputes. This allows others to speak up, allows leadership to admit mistakes, and is best in the long run.




An attitude of win every argument is counterproductive. Instead having an attitude that an argument is an opportunity allows for learning and growth, multiple solutions, and a best outcome.  Know your triggers, recognize them, don’t let your emotions hijack the argument, stay focused, give yourself positive self-talk with self-distancing. Ideas have been presented on what to do and what to ask at work to help others to collaborate with you and work towards success with an argument. What do you think? Was this helpful?

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]