How to Argue Better for Things that Matter

“The personal is political.” (author unknown)

Debates on social media have caused many people severe angst. Some have left social media altogether out of sheer frustration. Debates among family and friends can sometimes be avoided but there are times when those conversations are critical. Some people enjoy debates, but when it comes to things that matter to us, when the stakes are high, it is no longer a form of intellectual stimulation, nor is it something that can always be avoided. Lives may depend on the outcome. Debate and argument are used to sway political opinion, business policies, decisions about inheritance, and the future of relationships, to name a few.

When Robert came out as being gay to his parents, he was not simply expressing his political opinions about homosexuality, he was sharing a part of himself with them in hopes of acceptance. Robert and his parents feelings about Robert’s sexuality is likely to be influenced by their own political and ideological perspectives but debating those perspectives, could be incredibly painful when the topic is so personal if those perspectives don’t match personal experience.

When Kylie talks to her boss about climate change, she is not simply arguing a perspective for the sake of the argument, but is genuinely concerned about the future of the planet she lives on and how it will affect any children she may choose to have. 

I believe that some of the angst around debates, particularly regarding things that matter is the idea that we have to win. It is important to consider what is needed in each situation. For example, Robert may not be able to convince his parents at the moment he comes out to them as homosexual, that all of their previous held beliefs about homosexuality are wrong, but he may hope to leave the conversation with a plan to talk further together once they’ve processed the information, and not have the relationship cut off then and there. Of course this is not all in Robert’s control, but there are ways that he might be able to appeal to his parents values, as discussed below, to affect their beliefs.

Kylie may not be able to convince her boss that climate change is real, but she may be able to find some common ground with him on issues that they both care about, to build upon, in hopes of building a relationship that is based on respect in which each might be open to hearing and being influenced by the other person.


If there is something that is meaningful to you, the outcome of which impacts you and or those you love, it is important to understand effective ways to communicate your perspective.

Hugo Mercier speaks about the three things that most influence our perspectives: 

  1. Currently held beliefs

  2. Trusted sources

  3. Values

Mercier states that if you are trying to challenge someone’s beliefs, you will be most effective if you understand their values and can articulate how your perspective connects with those values. Mercer notes that information given to support your argument will only be effective if it comes from sources that the other person trusts.

In order to understand another person’s values, what they’re current beliefs are, and who they trust, you will need to talk to them and ask about these things. This is a conversation that is not about winning or debating, it is about learning. Mercier notes, that you should be aware that your own perspective can also be changed in this type of dialogue. Here’s Mercier’s video:


Cognitive Distortions

Understanding others can make our arguments more effective. One thing that can get in the way of our effectiveness in debates is when our own perspectives about ourself and others are distorted. One way that this happens is through cognitive distortions. Psych Central names 15 types of distortions including Mental Filtering – where we focus primarily on the negative and minimize the positive; Overgeneralization – For example, one negative event in a day means that the whole day was negative. Polarized thinking – or Black and White thinking, leaving little room for grabs, for example, the believe that someone is all good or all bad.

One way to combat cognitive distortions is to recognize when they are at play. Other ways to challenge them include focusing on exceptions to your mental rules, for example, challenging the thought, “She always disagrees with me,” with naming times when “she” has agreed with you. In this way a less distorted thought might be, “she often disagrees with me.” Surprisingly, this small addition of the word, “often” can impact the way we feel in the moment.

In conversations with others, in order to avoid things like black and white thinking, challenge yourself to find commonalities or areas of agreement.

These types of distortions can contributes to negative feelings and can make it difficult to be open to positive feedback or to finding common ground with others with whom we disagree.

For more on cognitive distortions see 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. 

Logical Fallacies

Another thing that can undermine your arguments and ability to persuade others is logical fallacies.

Watch any public debate or interview with a politician and you’ll see many of these at play. The image below lists just a few of them. Different philosophers and groups have developed different lists, but many share the same premises as the ones below.

logical fallacies


For more on arguing things that matter and caring for yourself in the process see When the Stakes are High – Caring for Your Mental Health When Debating Things That Matter

And How to Ask for What you Want

Also check out “Liar, Cheat, Racist…” – 7 Ways Labelling People, not Behaviour, does more Harm than Good

And 9 Myths about Emotions

Also 8 Reasons to Re-evaluate a Friendship

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