The only way to get the best of an argument
is to avoid it.
A SURE WAY OF MAKING
AND HOW TO AVOID IT
When Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, he
confessed that if he could be right 75 percent of the time,
he would reach the highest measure of his expectation.
If that was the highest rating that one of the most
men of the twentieth century could hope to
obtain, what about you and me?
If you can be sure of being right only 55 percent of the
time, you can go down to Wall Street and make a million
dollars a day. If you can’t be sure of being right even 55
percent of the time, why should you tell other people
they are wrong?
You can tell people they are wrong by a look or an
intonation or a gesture just as eloquently as you can in
words - and if you tell them they are wrong, do you
make them want to agree with you? Never! For you have
struck a direct blow at their intelligence, judgment,
pride and self-respect. That will make them want to
strike back. But it will never make them want to change
their minds. You may then hurl at them all the logic of a
Plato or an Immanuel Kant, but you will not alter their
opinions, for you have hurt their feelings.
Never begin by announcing "I am going to prove so andso
to you.” That’s bad. That’s tantamount to saying:
“I’m smarter than you are, I’m going to tell you a thing
or two and make you change your mind.”
That is a challenge. It arouses opposition and makes
the listener want to battle with you before you even
It is difficult, under even the most benign conditions,
to change people’s minds. So why make it harder? Why
If you are going to prove anything, don’t let anybody
know it. Do it so subtly, so adroitly, that no one will feel
that you are doing it. This was expressed succinctly by
Men must be taught as if you taught them not
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Over three hundred years ago Galileo said:
You cannot teach a man anything; you can only
help him to find it within himself.
As Lord Chesterfield said to his son:
Be wiser than other people if you can;
but do not tell them so.
Socrates said repeatedly to his followers in Athens:
One thing only I know, and that
is that I know nothing.
Well, I can’t hope to be any smarter than Socrates, so
I have quit telling people they are wrong. And I find that
If a person makes a statement that you think is wrong
- yes, even that you know is wrong - isn’t it better to
begin by saying: “Well, now, look, I thought otherwise,
but I may be wrong. I frequently am. And if I am wrong,
I want to be put right. Let’s examine the facts.”
There’s magic, positive magic, in such phrases as: "I
may be wrong. I frequently am. Let’s examine
Nobody in the heavens above or on earth
or in the waters under the earth will ever object to your
saying: "I may be wrong. Let’s examine the facts.”
One of our class members who used this approach in
dealing with customers was Harold Reinke, a Dodge
dealer in Billings, Montana. He reported that because of
the pressures of the automobile business, he was often
hard-boiled and callous when dealing with customers’
complaints. This caused flared tempers, loss of business
and general unpleasantness.
He told his class: “Recognizing that this was getting
me nowhere fast, I tried a new tack. I would say something
like this: ‘Our dealership has made so many mistakes
that I am frequently ashamed. We may have erred
in your case. Tell me about it.’
“This approach becomes quite disarming, and by the
time the customer releases his feelings, he is usually
much more reasonable when it comes to settling the
matter. In fact, several customers have thanked me for
having such an understanding attitude. And two of them
have even brought in friends to buy new cars. In this
highly competitive market, we need more of this type of
customer, and I believe that showing respect for all customers’
opinions and treating them diplomatically and
courteously will help beat the competition.”
You will never get into trouble by admitting that you
may be wrong. That will stop all argument and inspire
your opponent to be just as fair and open and broad-minded
as you are. It will make him want to admit that
he, too, may be wrong.
If you know positively that a person is wrong, and you
bluntly tell him or her so, what happens? Let me illustrate.
Mr. S. a young New York attorney, once argued
a rather important case before the United States
Supreme Court (Lustgarten v. Fleet Corporation 280
U.S. 320). The case involved a considerable sum of
money and an important question of law. During the
argument, one of the Supreme Court justices said to him:
“The statute of limitations in admiralty law is six years,
is it not?”
Mr. S. stopped, stared at the Justice for a moment,
and then said bluntly: “Your Honor, there is no statute
of limitations in admiralty.”
"A hush fell on the court,” said Mr. S as he related
his experience to one of the author’s classes, “and the
temperature in the room seemed to drop to zero. I was
right. Justice - was wrong. And I had told him so. But
did that make him friendly? No. I still believe that I had
the law on my side. And I know that I spoke better than
I ever spoke before. But I didn’t persuade. I made the
enormous blunder of telling a very learned and famous
man that he was wrong.”
Few people are logical. Most of us are prejudiced and
biased. Most of us are blighted with preconceived notions,
with jealousy, suspicion, fear, envy and pride. And
most citizens don’t want to change their minds about
their religion or their haircut or communism or their favorite
movie star. So, if you are inclined to tell people
they are wrong, please read the following paragraph
every morning before breakfast. It is from James Harvey
Robinson’s enlightening book The Mind in the Making.
We sometimes find ourselves changing our minds without
any resistance or heavy emotion, but if we are told we
are wrong, we resent the imputation and harden our hearts.
We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs,
but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them
when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It
is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us,
but our self-esteem which is threatened. . . . The little word
“my” is the most important one in human affairs, and properly
to reckon with it is the beginning of wisdom. It has the
same force whether it is “my” dinner, “my” dog, and "my"
house, or “my” father, “my” country, and “my” God. We
not only resent the imputation that our watch is wrong, or
our car shabby, but that our conception of the canals of
Mars, of the pronunciation of “Epictetus,” of the medicinal
value of salicin, or of the date of Sargon I is subject to revision.
We like to continue to believe what we have been
accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused
when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to
seek every manner of excuse for clinging to it. The result is
that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments
for going on believing as we already do.
Carl Rogers, the eminent psychologist, wrote in his
book On Becoming a Person:
I have found it of enormous value when I can permit
myself to understand the other person. The way in which I
have worded this statement may seem strange to you, Is it
necessary to permit oneself to understand another? I think
it is. Our first reaction to most of the statements (which we
hear from other people) is an evaluation or judgment, rather
than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some
feeling, attitude or belief, our tendency is almost immediately
to feel “that’s right,” or “that’s stupid,” “that’s abnormal,”
“that’s unreasonable,” “that’s incorrect,” “that’s not
nice ." Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand
precisely what the meaning of the statement is to the other
* Adapted from Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person
Mifflin, 1961), pp. 18ff.
I once employed an interior decorator to make some
draperies for my home. When the bill arrived, I was
A few days later, a friend dropped in and looked at the
draperies. The price was mentioned, and she exclaimed
with a note of triumph: “What? That’s awful. I am afraid
he put one over on you.”
True? Yes, she had told the truth, but few people like
to listen to truths that reflect on their judgment. So,
being human, I tried to defend myself. I pointed out that
the best is eventually the cheapest, that one can’t expect
to get quality and artistic taste at bargain-basement
prices, and so on and on.
The next day another friend dropped in, admired the
draperies, bubbled over with enthusiasm, and expressed
a wish that she could afford such exquisite creations for
her home. My reaction was totally different. “Well, to
tell the truth,” I said, "I can’t afford them myself. I paid
too much. I’m sorry I ordered them,”
When we are wrong, we may admit it to ourselves.
And if we are handled gently and tactfully, we may
admit it to others and even take pride in our frankness
and broad-mindedness. But not if someone else is trying
to ram the unpalatable fact down our esophagus.
Horace Greeley, the most famous editor in America
during the time of the Civil War, disagreed violently
with Lincoln’s policies. He believed that he could drive
Lincoln into agreeing with him by a campaign of argument,
ridicule and abuse. He waged this bitter campaign
month after month, year after year. In fact, he wrote a
brutal, bitter, sarcastic and personal attack on President
Lincoln the night Booth shot him.
But did all this bitterness make Lincoln agree with
Greeley? Not at all. Ridicule and abuse never do.
If you want some excellent suggestions about dealing
with people and managing yourself and improving your
personality, read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography -
one of the most fascinating life stories ever written, one
of the classics of American literature. Ben Franklin tells
how he conquered the iniquitous habit of argument and
transformed himself into one of the most able, suave and
diplomatic men in American history.
One day, when Ben Franklin was a blundering youth,
an old Quaker friend took him aside and lashed him with
a few stinging truths, something like this:
Ben, you are impossible. Your opinions have a slap in
them for everyone who differs with you. They have become
so offensive that nobody cares for them. Your friends find
they enjoy themselves better when you are not around. You
know so much that no man can tell you anything. Indeed,
no man is going to try, for the effort would lead only to
discomfort and hard work. So you are not likely ever to
know any more than you do now, which is very little.
One of the finest things I know about Ben Franklin is
the way he accepted that smarting rebuke. He was big
enough and wise enough to realize that it was true, to
sense that he was headed for failure and social disaster.
So he made a right-about-face. He began immediately to
change his insolent, opinionated ways.
"I made it a rule,” said Franklin, “to forbear all direct
contradiction to the sentiment of others, and all positive
assertion of my own,
I even forbade myself the use of
every word or expression in the language that imported
a fix’d opinion, such as ‘certainly,’ ‘undoubtedly,’ etc.,
and I adopted, instead of them, ‘I conceive,’ ‘I apprehend,
’ or ‘I imagine’ a thing to be so or so, or ‘it so
appears to me at present.’ When another asserted something
that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure
of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing
immediately some absurdity in his proposition: and in
answering I began by observing that in certain cases or
circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the
present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference,
etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in
my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more
pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my
opinions procur'd them a readier reception and less contradiction;
I had less mortification when I was found to
be in the wrong, and I more easily prevaile'd with others
to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened
to be in the right.
“And this mode, which I at first put on with some
violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy,
and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years
past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape
me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity)
I think it principally owing that I had earned so
much weight with my fellow citizens when I proposed
new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much
influence in public councils when I became a member;
for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to
much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in
language, and yet I generally carried my points.”
How do Ben Franklin’s methods work in business?
Let’s take two examples.
Katherine A, Allred of Kings Mountain, North Carolina,
is an industrial engineering supervisor for a yarn-processing
plant. She told one of our classes how she
handled a sensitive problem before and after taking our
“Part of my responsibility,” she reported, “deals with
setting up and maintaining incentive systems and standards
for our operators so they can make more money by
producing more yarn. The system we were using had
worked fine when we had only two or three different
types of yarn, but recently we had expanded our inventory
and capabilities to enable us to run more than
twelve different varieties.
The present system was no
longer adequate to pay
the operators fairly for the work
being performed and
give them an incentive to increase
I had worked up a new system which would
enable us to pay the operator by the class of yam she
was running at any one particular time. With my new
system in hand, I entered the meeting determined to
prove to the management that my system was the right
approach. I told them in detail how they were wrong
and showed where they were being unfair and how I
had all the answers they needed. To say the least, I
failed miserably! I had become so busy defending my
position on the new system that I had left them no opening
to graciously admit their problems on the old one.
The issue was dead.
“After several sessions of this course, I realized all too
well where I had made my mistakes. I called another
meeting and this time I asked where they felt their problems
were. We discussed each point, and I asked them
their opinions on which was the best way to proceed.
With a few low-keyed suggestions, at proper intervals, I
let them develop my system themselves. At the end of
the meeting when I actually presented my system, they
enthusiastically accepted it.
"I am convinced now that nothing good is accomplished
and a lot of damage can be done if you tell a
person straight out that he or she is wrong. You only
succeed in stripping that person of self-dignity and making
yourself an unwelcome part of any discussion.”
Let’s take another example - and remember these
cases I am citing are typical of the experiences of thousands
of other people. R. V. Crowley was a salesman for
a lumber company in New York. Crowley admitted that
he had been telling hard-boiled lumber inspectors for
years that they were wrong. And he had won the arguments
too. But it hadn’t done any good. “For these lumber
inspectors,” said Mr. Crowley, "are like baseball
umpires. Once they make a decision, they never change
Mr. Crowley saw that his firm was losing thousands of
dollars through the arguments he won. So while taking
my course, he resolved to change tactics and abandon
arguments. With what results? Here is the story as he
told it to the fellow members of his class:
“One morning the phone rang in my office. A hot and
bothered person at the other end proceeded to inform
me that a car of lumber we had shipped into his plant
was entirely unsatisfactory. His firm had stopped unloading
and requested that we make immediate arrangements
to remove the stock from their yard. After about
one-fourth of the car had been unloaded, their lumber
inspector reported that the lumber was running 55 percent
below grade. Under the circumstances, they refused
to accept it.
"I immediately started for his plant and on the way
turned over in my mind the best way to handle the situation.
Ordinarily, under such circumstances, I should
have quoted grading rules and tried, as a result of my
own experience and knowledge as a lumber inspector,
to convince the other inspector that the lumber was actually
up to grade, and that he was misinterpreting the
rules in his inspection. However, I thought I would
apply the principles learned in this training.
“When I arrived at the plant, I found the purchasing
agent and the lumber inspector in a wicked humor, both
set for an argument and a fight. We walked out to the car
that was being unloaded, and I requested that they continue
to unload so that I could see how things were
going. I asked the inspector to go right ahead and lay out
the rejects, as he had been doing, and to put the good
pieces in another pile.
“After watching him for a while it began to dawn on
me that his inspection actually was much too strict and
that he was misinterpreting the rules. This particular
lumber was white pine, and I knew the inspector was
thoroughly schooled in hard woods but not a competent,
experienced inspector on white pine. White pine happened
to be my own strong suit, but did I offer any
objection to the way he was grading the lumber? None
I kept on watching and gradually began to ask
questions as to why certain pieces were not satisfactory.
I didn’t for one instant insinuate that the inspector was
wrong. I emphasized that my only reason for asking was
in order that we could give his firm exactly what they
wanted in future shipments. wanted in future shipments.
“By asking questions in a very friendly, cooperative
spirit, and insisting continually that they were right in
laying out boards not satisfactory to their purpose, I got
him warmed up, and the strained relations between us
began to thaw and melt away. An occasional carefully
put remark on my part gave birth to the idea in his mind
that possibly some of these rejected pieces were actually
within the grade that they had bought, and that their
requirements demanded a more expensive grade. I was
very careful, however, not to let him think I was making
an issue of this point.
“Gradually his whole attitude changed. He finally admitted
to me that he was not experienced on white pine
and began to ask me questions about each piece as it
came out of the car, I would explain why such a piece
came within the grade specified, but kept on insisting
that we did not want him to take it if it was unsuitable
for their purpose. He finally got to the point where he
felt guilty every time he put a piece in the rejected pile.
And at last he saw that the mistake was on their part for
not having specified as good a grade as they needed.
“The ultimate outcome was that he went through the
entire carload again after I left, accepted the whole lot,
and we received a check in full.
“In that one instance alone, a little tact, and the determination
to refrain from telling the other man he was
wrong, saved my company a substantial amount of cash,
and it would be hard to place a money value on the good
will that was saved.”
Martin Luther King was asked how, as a pacifist, he
could be an admirer of Air Force General Daniel "Chappie”
James, then the nation’s highest-ranking black officer.
Dr. King replied, "I judge people by their own
principles - not by my own.”
In a similar way, General Robert E. Lee once spoke to
the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, in the
most glowing terms about a certain officer under his
command. Another officer in attendance was astonished.
“General,” he said, " do you not know that the man of
whom you speak so highly is one of your bitterest enemies
who misses no opportunity to malign you?” "Yes,"
replied General Lee, “but the president asked my opinion
of him; he did not ask for his opinion of me.”
By the way, I am not revealing anything new in this
chapter. Two thousand years ago, Jesus said: “Agree
with thine adversary quickly.”
And 2,200 years before Christ was born, King Akhtoi
of Egypt gave his son some shrewd advice - advice that
is sorely needed today. “Be diplomatic,” counseled the
King. “It will help you gain your point.”
In other words, don’t argue with your customer or your
spouse or your adversary. Don’t tell them they are
wrong, don’t get them stirred up. Use a little diplomacy.