How To Argue Like A Pro

For many people a conflict avoidance is part of their nature. They prefer to solve problems in an amicable way, they don’t like rocking the boat, they don’t enjoy being confronted by aggressive individuals. And unfortunately, they don’t like to address problems heads on, and rather hope that things will somehow work out themselves. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. In both situations, the leader fails to show ownership and therefore fails as a leader.

So how do you spot people like that on your team, or how do you recognize that it is in fact you who acts this way? Why is it bad and what you can do about it?


It is a human nature that we tend to rely on people we know. We like working with those, who are more like us. If we are not careful, we even recognize these people more, reward those who agree with our ideas, and eventually create a group of yes-men and yes-women. They know what we want to hear and that is what they are going to tell us. A basic human survival tactics. They understand that short-term that is a winning strategy. Very few of them really thing about the long-term impact on them, the relationship, the team, and the company.

The problem with these individuals is that they are giving up their freedom and opportunity to influence the world around them. They voluntarily put themselves into a subservient position and are seemingly happy there. That’s it, until something goes wrong. Then they start blaming the world for their misfortunes. They become passive aggressive.

Passive aggressive

They may still say “yes” to the boss, but behind his or her back will actively work to undermine what the boss is trying to achieve. They still act in the survival mode of self-preservation, but they also understand that they are not really aligned with the boss, and want to maintain relationships with people who may disagree with the boss more openly. They want to have a backup plan.

This is probably the most anti-leader type of behavior you can come up with. And it is very toxic. If you see someone on your team acting this way it is a huge red flag and a situation that needs to be addressed immediately.

Purely aggressive

When you approach such individuals with feedback they will employ the passive aggressive strategy to get you of their backs. If you are perseverant, chances are that they turn to purely aggressive. In many respects, this is a positive signal. At least they are not in denial anymore and they speak their mind.

It is not a healthy argument, but at least things are in the open. Now it is only a question of some diplomacy and time to move the conversation to more constructive one but still open and frank.

Direct and constructive

Where you want to be is to have a direct and construction debate. Essentially a constructive disagreement. It promotes innovation, it promotes inclusion and different opinions, it creates an environment where people feel they have their voice, and ultimately if done properly it leads to higher engagement in the teams. It builds a sense of ownership as it is visible to everyone that people care. They care enough about the success of the project or the company so they are willing to argue for what they believe is the right thing to do rather than quietly accepting whatever the boss says even though they don’t think it will work.

How does a healthy debate look like?

You might be surprised that even arguments can be planned and managed in a way that there is a useful outcome. There are just couple of rules you need to follow to make the most of it and to prevent the conversation turning into heated argument that destroys relationships.

Start with open mind and questions to be answered

Most of the arguments start with both sides having an agenda. They want to prove they are right. Nothing good will ever come from such an argument. If one side needs to prove they are right, the other side immediately sees it and returns fire in the same manner.

Even if you have a strong opinion start with trying to understand the other side. Asking questions and getting a good picture of where the opposing party comes from will not only help you see the big picture and possibly learn some data you didn’t have, but also helps to set the tone, and the other party will feel heard.

Don’t assume anything

Wrong assumptions are the root cause of many arguments. Both sides vociferously argue their point only to discover at the end that they completely misunderstood the intentions of the opposing party. This is especially true when the argument starts over email. As I wrote in The Fallacy Of Email Communication, email is in many situations a really bad communication tool.

Before you get worked up about something try to see if there is another explanation to the one you arrived at. Maybe the person meant something different than what you understood. Try to find more positive explanations and ask questions, “do I understand it right that you are saying this or that?” “I see, can you clarify what exactly do you mean by this?”

Every healthy debate has a goal

It happens surprisingly often that people are arguing without really knowing why. One side wants to achieve something but it is never really communicated what that is, instead the other side feels attacked and puts up a defense. Suddenly, you have an argument where only one person knows what it is about.

The best way to start an argument is to clearly state why you are arguing. If both sides understand what the outcome of the conversation should be it helps keeping it focused. It may start with statement like this, “I understand there are conflicting opinions about this topic so let us discuss the pros and cons and decide what we do as a team.”

If it is a conversation within a bigger group it never hurts to come up with some rules of engagement. Agree on the timeframe, on not interrupting each other, on sticking with the topic, and ideally select a moderator who won’t push his or her agenda but will ensure a fair fight.

People mean well

You will never have a healthy debate and will never be able to listen to others if you see the world as a dangerous place where everyone is trying to hurt you. Give people the benefit of doubt. They mean well, they care about the topic as much as you do, and they genuinely believe that their approach is the best for everyone.

Don’t project your own feelings into others. Only because you feel betrayed it doesn’t mean that the other person really wanted to hurt you. You are responsible for your own feelings so don’t blame the world for feeling bad.

Stick with the facts

It may sound like an obvious advice but it is really difficult to do if you make assumptions about the other person, and if you get all emotional. Don’t attack the intentions or the integrity of the person. Focus and talk about data.

If the data are wrong, attack the data. Don’t accuse the person who brought the data of being a liar. “This spreadsheet shows that there were only twenty people present on the event. I don’t think it is true since when I was there I counted twenty-five. Can we validate whether it is a realistic count or a mistake was made?”

Argument is about learning, not about winning

People sometimes have such a need to win that they are willing to argue even for their weaknesses. Instead of using the argument to learn about the other party and often about themselves, they keep pushing to win. They may win the argument, but lose the relationship or the deal. They forget what is the reason they are arguing.

This is especially important in arguments with your friends or your spouse. Why are you arguing so much to prove your spouse being wrong? What is the ultimate goal? To prove you are right? Or to have a good relationship where both of you feel listened to, valued, and happy?

In the corporate settings, it may result in shutting down a debate before it starts, or to use the argument about the one who brought it up if it doesn’t align with the company policy or beliefs.

Dissenting opinions should be always explored and argued. Only then you can ensure a healthy culture where problems are being surfaced and talked about and the company keeps moving forward.

Before you start an argument make sure the other person is comfortable with it

Both personal and cultural aspects come to play here. Some people are simply not comfortable with arguing. They will not do it. They will refuse to have a spirited conversation. And if really pushed, they will get way too emotional and completely mishandle the conversation as they simply don’t have the practice and don’t know how to argue.

Give everyone equal opportunity to speak

If you see the debate is very unbalanced and one side essentially giving up you need to take a step back and reset the rules of engagement. It often happens with people at different levels in the organizational hierarchy with different positional power. The subordinate brings a topic and the boss immediately starts arguing his or her side. The subordinate tries to argue back but is quickly shut down.

What this brings is resentment, fear, and the feeling of hopelessness with the subordinate. If you catch yourself arguing with people lower in the chain of command you need to dial it back a bit. You should give the other party more room to voice their side since you have the positional power anyway. In a healthy debate, everyone is equal and titles don’t matter. You should win on power of your argument, not on power of your job title.

Don’t forget cultural aspects

Disagreements and the way they are resolved are culture specific. There are cultures who prefer to save face at any cost, even if it means to avoid disagreement. There are also cultures where the disagreement is seen as a sign of respect since you are paying attention to what I’m saying and you care enough that you voice any concerns or issues that would lead to failure.

There are cultures where disagreement about a topic gets quickly translated as disapproving of the person, while in other cultures you can have a heated conversation about a topic and disagree wholeheartedly and then ten minutes later go for a beer laughing like the best friends.

Before you get into an argument verify what the best way to surface opposing views actually looks like in that culture. Maybe people need a time to prepare, maybe something needs to be pre-argued in private, maybe some sort of brainstorming would help.

Decision is a decision

Arguments don’t end when people stop yelling at each other. Arguments stop when people agree to support a common approach. They may still not like it but they leave the room committed to make it work.

This is often a problem for the side of the argument that wasn’t successful in pushing their vision. They would go back to their teams with messages like, “I agree it is a stupid idea, but the others decided to do it that way.” This is a huge no-no. Even if you are not hundred percent convinced the best solution was selected you need to get on board and do your best to make it work, “we have decided that this is what we do.” Full stop. No disclaimers about what you really think. The time to argue is over. Now is the time to execute.

No-nos of a healthy debate

We talked about how a healthy debate should look like. But what are the things that move the debate to an unhealthy direction and can cause a lot of harm? Here are the no-nos of a good argument:

  • Don’t criticize the person. (focus on idea)
  • Don’t use rude and derogatory language when addressing others. (keep it civilized)
  • Don’t lie, deceive or exaggerate. (stick with the facts even if they are not in your favor)
  • Don’t change subject. (focus on the goal)
  • Don’t fight for your ego. (let the best idea win)
  • Don’t interrupt. (everyone has their turn)
  • Don’t have a scarcity mentality (it is not about winning or losing)
  • Don’t use negative body language (rolling your eyes and sarcastic laugh is not helpful)

As you can see having a healthy debate is not an easy thing to do. But if done right, it can have a hugely positive impact on the atmosphere in the team. It can stimulate learning and innovation as opposing views are heard. It can create engagement and help with inclusion as minority views can be presented without fear. And it can move the organization forward as it surfaces any problems and issues in timely manner.


Photo: geralt /

I’m gathering material for a book about introversion, leadership and successful careers, and I would love to hear from you! If you are an introvert, who has a successful career and/or who moved to a leadership role, I would like to ask you to share your experience with me. I prepared a couple of short survey’s that will make it easy for you: Strengths of successful introverts (What strengths introverts have that can help them be successful?); Blueprint of a successful career (What is required for a successful career?); Strategies for introverted leaders (As an introverted leader what strategies do you use to lead and manage others effectively?)

Categories: Communication

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