Wednesday, January 12, 2011

You Cannot Win an Argument: The Dale Carnegie Method

Commentary: This is a continuing series of posts reviewing Dale Carnegie's book 'How to Win Friends and Influence People'. This program is attractive in professional relationships due to it's time tested advice for those moving up the ladder of success. I have been introduced to Dale Carnegie training not once but twice. I attended Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School or AOCS during 1988 through which Dale Carnegie principles were first introduced to me, at least in part. Years later during 1999, I attended the Dale Carnegie school and coursework introducing me again to the Dale Carnegie method and principles.  I will be detailing only one principle a week in a shorter post in order to for you to digest the information. This series  may be reviewed at All the Principles in One Post.

Dale Carnegie approaches the notion of an argument from a lay and heated discussion that may or may not be solicited, is not intended to settle a disputed point, but instead to exalt an opinion or person. In this post, Carnegie seeks to begin in a friendly way. His points should be applied to the notion of informal and formal argumentation; The Argumentation Series Posts

You Cannot Win an Argument

Dale Carnegie took it upon himself once to be the unsolicited and unwelcome authority to correct a man who was his host. Another present knew that Carnegie was factually accurate. Appalled at his hosts insistence on the untruth and the other's unwillingness to corroborate Carnegie's position, Carnegie queried why? The other offered a list in his response:
  • Why prove to a man he is wrong?
  • Is that going to make him like you?
  • Why not let him save face?
  • If he did not ask for your opinion, why argue with him?
  • Always avoid the acute angle.
The object is to build friends not enemies. It was a lesson that Carnegie needed to learn and many of us need to learn as well. Nine times out of ten an argument ends with both sides convinced that they are absolutely right. Simply put you cannot win an argument. Regardless of the outcome, you lose the argument. Someone's pride will be damaged and that will lead to resentment.

A man convinced against his will, is of the the same opinion still.

Carnegie urges people to consider that there is a time to remark. It is harder for people not to talk. You are in the game to get your opponents good will not an academic victory. Being right, dead right, is most often futile. The longer we argue the more stubborn we become. Abraham Lincoln once commented that killing the dog does not cure the bite.

Avoid arguing, change the subject. Welcome disagreement. Ignor your early instinctive impressions. Control your temper. Listen. Seek points of agreement. Be honest. Offer/promise to consider the opposing view. Thank your opponent sincerely for their views. Postpone action to think through the courses of action.

In the end, even if your opponent is wrong there could be merit in some of the subtle points. Having temperance and consideration builds positive relationships. Your goals are not to win an argument but move other objectives forward in which the argument was mostly likely diversionary.

Principle 10:
The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.

Commentary: There are various kinds of arguments such as a prejudicial argument, an intellectual argument, and an emotionally based argument. They are distinctly different.

The prejudicial argument is usually hostile and a deliberate attempt to steer the opponent into a compromising position that results in defeat. These arguments are often utilized in legal proceedings. One should recognize these and avoid them. If caught in one, seek to either dismiss the argument, redirect the argument to a new stasis, or seek to answer with riddles or questions.

Intellectual arguments are data-fact driven and built bottom up. The intellectual argument is principled and 'reasoned' having clear lines of logic that can be followed. Principles, such as Ockham's Razor, are common to all parties. Intellectual arguments are conducted in a civil manner even though the parties can be become emphatic. These arguments are intended to settle an unresolved question with reasonable certainty. The debate could characterize this argument.

Emotionally based arguments are most often built upon theory driven processing. This approach is top down and can be emotionally charged with pride due to ownership of a unique personal view. No one appreciates the personal view except for the one who holds it. Yet somehow many people feel their views are sacred and others must handle them with tremendous reverence. The individual begins with a set of assumptions then seeks to support these assumptions most often using selective facts.

People argue they have a right-to-an-opinion when disputed in order to deflect the dispute to a discussion of rights. If there is a right-to-an-opinion then such a right cannot settle disputes because another’s rights cannot be violated. Simply no one can be right and no one can be wrong. Clearly, there is paradoxical tension in this right. Hence, there cannot be a right-to-an-opinion because the duty of the right cannot be executed.

Unfortunately, many people are not genuinely interested in the truth. Instead, they choose a worldview for various personal or political motives then desperately seek to validate everything to that worldview using a theory driven process often to the chagrin of hoaxes, pseudo-sciences, fallacies, and poor reason.

Dale Carnegie's discussion is focused on the emotionally based argument which tends to be futile for the reasons discussed and more. Your objective, in these instances, is to seek positive relationships not win the argument. Do not let mission creep misguide you. Find friends not foes.


Carnegie, D. (1981). How to win friends and influence people. New York: Pocket Books.

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