Effective Techniques For Arguing

This article describes techniques for arguing. The techniques that we explore here are useful in any argument, whether between spouses, friends, associates, or siblings. If any technique is more or less effective for a particular opponent, that will be stated in the description of the technique. Note that this is an article on effective techniques for arguments. They are not appropriate for discussions. The difference being that discussions are a two-way street while arguments are where one or both sides are not interested in what the other side has to say. The point of a discussion is to understand. The point of arguing is to gain supremacy over another. If you make liberal use of these techniques, you are almost guaranteed to feel superior, putting lesser mortals where they deserve to be. There is a warning however: if you meet someone who is aware of these techniques, your effectiveness will be severely reduced. Fortunately, most people are unaware, even when they have been repeatedly victimized by use of these very techniques - and even if they subconciously make use of some of them themselves.

In theory, a discussion should result in the parties reaching a logical conclusion based on the available facts, perhaps even one to which neither party held at the start. When arguing, however, one must be careful to avoid the central issue. If that issue is not ignored, you run the very real risk of reaching a conclusion before you can destroy your opponent. Remember: logic is the enemy of an argument. Avoid it! In fact, many an argument arises when it becomes obvious during a discussion that one or both parties do not have a good foundation underpinning their opinion(s). At that point, the folly of using logic becomes clear, and one must switch to the techniques herein to come out on top. For this reason, it is best to get your opponent into an emotional state. Once his emotions cloud his mind, he is less likely to use logical (or even remotely rational) statements. This makes your job much easier.

Be aware that these techniques are deeply flawed from a logical standpoint. But since arguments are inherently foolish, this is not a problem. If you ever want to turn a discussion into an argument, simply start following these suggestions. It is easy to turn a discussion into an argument, but you can never turn an argument into a discussion. That is why you will find that most of these techniques have to do with misdirection, turning the discussion from the actual issue to others. Once this is successfully done, you only need to hold the course until your opponent has given up in defeat. After that, you can rightly feel superior, smug and self-satisfied that you have bested another. Victory will come most quickly if you can keep your opponent on the defensive - once either party is bogged down in defending himself the battle will soon be over.

Originally, I had intended this article to be an exhaustive encyclopedia of arguing techniques. However, while writing it, I found that the sheer number of techniques is far more than can be addressed in anything short of a book. There is no limit to the creative foolishness of humans. Besides, I needed to wrap this up since this article is a precursor to some others I've been planning. I've been working on this article, from time to time, for nearly a year and it is time to move on. Therefore, I have tried to address general categories of popular arguing techniques, providing some specific examples, and left it at that.


Basic Techniques

1. Be vague.

There are two sub-techniques: a) topical vagry and b) word vagry. Topical vagary happens when the topic of the argument is so broad, or so nebulously defined, that there is no way to focus on a specific issue. This can result in topic drift, where the topic being argued changes (for instance from SUVs to sport's cars). Note that this can happen even in cases where there is no topical vagary, but starting with a vague topic makes the process easier. This technique is very useful in that when your opponent makes a point that actually hurts your position, you can simply shift to another issue. Remember – avoid defending yourself. For instance, if arguing about fuel-efficiency of SUVs, one side could shift to fuel-efficiency of sports cars. From there, they can shift completely away from fuel-eficiency to other issues of sports cars, and so on.

Word vagary happens when a word (one central to the argument) is not used in a common way in society. Excellent examples include “religion”, “love”, “good”, and “bad”. In word vagary you need to be careful if your opponent wants to define terms. If he succeeds in doing so, you will find it more difficult to use this technique. You can use the vagary to your advantage by finding fault with one topic and then applying it to another vague topic by equating the two. For instance, “Religion” and “Faith”. Note that these are related topics, but not identical. However, the vagueness in how the word “religion” is used makes it easy to equate it to “faith”. By far, the most useful words for this technique are "good" and "bad" (or “evil”). These words imply a moral imperative, and have strong connotations, without actually defining why something is good or bad. In fact, if used against you, you should ask why something is good or bad – that is, what is the underlying basis for the use of terms that imply morality. Of course, if you are on the other side, your response will likely use the next technique.


2. Guilt by association

The idea here is to imply that some large group of people is correct, where they disagree with your opponent (“Everybody thinks...”), or that some large group of people are incorrect when they agree with your opponent. The fallacy in this type of argument is that the majority is not always either correct or incorrect. Consider how many millions of people die of smoking-related disease. Or the millions that die from AIDS in Africa due to risky behavior. Fortunately, in a world of roughly 6 billion souls, you can always find a large group of people who hold to your position, regardless of its own merits, or lack thereof. Likewise, you can always find some large group who hold to your opponent's position and are viewed negatively. But be careful: if your opponent uses this same technique, but refers to an even larger group than you did, this can backfire on you. As an alternative, you can use a small, but elite, group of "experts" to lend support to your theory. Obviously, using both huge groups and elite groups to support the same argument is very difficult. However, the expert argurer can often pull this off if the two variations of this technique are separated sufficiently during the course of the argument. Likewise, if you can associate your opponent's position (or better yet, your opponent himself) with some negatively-viewed group, you can tear down his argument by saying that he is wrong because of his implied association with some group which is obviously wrong.

Another form of this technique is to capitalize on any mistake made by your opponent. If he misstates something, or just gets a fact wrong – and you can call him on it – you can refer to that all through the rest of the argument. Especially if he starts to make a good point, you can bring up the mistake which will weaken his point by associating it with the mistake. All of the association needed is to point out that he made the earlier mistake. It need not be the case, and usually cannot be, that the prior mistake has any relation to the current topic of the argument.


3. Name Dropping

You can make use of famous (or infamous) persons to support your opinion. Often just dropping a name can work wonders. If you can actually quote the individual - that is even better. In fact, if you can lure your opponent into insisting that your quote is not attributable to the famous person, you can pull out the reference and deal a particularly crushing defeat (make sure to have a printed copy available). A variation of this technique is to quote a fictional character from a book or movie. If the book/movie is popular, the quote can strengthen your position. If the book/movie is unpopular, it can be used to weaken your opponent. Some of the most useful names to use in our culture include Ghandi, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and Mother Theresa. As per the previous technique, if you simply imply association for yourself with one of the foregoing positive role-models, or an association of your opponent with one of the bad role-models, you can strengthen your position with no actual basis. But what differentiates this technique from the previous one is that it is not necessary to imply any association at all. Simply using a “good” name where you want to strengthen your argument, or a “bad” name where you want to weaken your opponent's is all that is necessary.

Also, as mentioned in the previous technique, you can use groups in the same way as individuals with the same results. Useful groups include terrorists groups, religious groups, the Klu Klux Klan, Marxists, Nazis, the United Nations, and the Red Cross. Likewise, certain countries carry connotations such as the USSR, the Roman empire, and Nazi Germany.

You can also use situations or events. Some powerful events to use here are “the holocost”, “the inquisition”, “D-day”, any assassination or murder, and corruption in high places.

Finally, certain philosophies can be used in the same way. Useful ones are “tolerance”, “freedom”, “feudalism”, “feminism”, “capitalism”, and “communism”.


4. Flattery

This technique is used to throw your opponent off guard. A naive opponent can be lulled into a false sense of safety early in the argument, so that when you attack, they will defend instead of offering a counter-attack. As mentioned earlier, that is often the beginning of the end. By use of flattery, you can also appear to be reasonable even if you are not, which is important if you are trying to impress others during the argument. This technique is completely ineffective once you have used Abuse (see technique 5), so be sure to use it early in the argument. For instance, “That is a well thought-out point, and I agree with most of it”. Of course, this can be a pure lie. You probably disagree with most of if, but the idea here is to disarm your opponent by throwing him off-balance. Note however, to avoid obvious flattery or anything which weakens your argument significantly.


5. Abuse

This does not necessarily mean name-calling, though that is always a good last ditch techinque. It also does not mean physical violence (that is brawling). This is usually the last attempt of a desperate argurer, but can be used by the studied argurer at nearly any point (see also technique 4). The main idea here is that a good offense is better than any defense, so be offensive as possible - while trying to appear polite. Character assassination is particularly satisfying and effective if you can imply (or outright claim) that your opponent's position is based on some unsavory character flaw, or stupidity. It is not important that your opponent actually have this flaw, the implication is often enough to put him on the defensive.


6. The straw man

This technique involves setting up a fictictious or irrelevant situation and then using it to strenghen yourself or weaken your opponent. The point here is to appear to use your opponent's very arguments to set up a situation which you can then use to point out the obvious flaws in his position (whether or not there are any). Of importance is to emphasize the weakest of his points and ignore the strong points. Once you have misrepresented his standpoint, you can tear that misrepresentation to pieces, and your opponent along with it.


7. Statistics and Factoids

Statistics are the best friend that an argument ever had. First, most people's statistics are inaccurate. Second, most people don't understand statistics in the first place. Third, you can find a statistic to support, or refute, nearly any position. Fourth, though the sources of statistics are myriad, most of them come to the general population through the mass media, which is hardly a good source for rational discussion no matter what views you hold. Even better than quoting statistics is quoting studies. The studies provide statistics, but in an argument they also provide you the persuasive power of technique 2 (the “experts”). This area is so productive for arguments because there are so many studies, that only a fraction are likely to be well known. As a consequence, they are both easy and hard to refute. Easy from the standpoint that there are likely other studies or statistics which contradict your opponent. Hard from the standpoint that it is hard to appear knowledgable about a study of which you've never heard. If you are familiar with a study that is being used against you, you can usually retort with statements from the same study (a decent study will end with a description of needs for further research, which may eventually invalidate the study). Otherwise, you can retort with a study with contradictory conclusions. You can also simply claim that your opponent misread the study, or made it up. He is unlikely to have a copy handy to prove your assertion wrong. If you get into real trouble, quote Mark Twain (“There are lies, damnable lies, and statistics”). However, once you play this card, you will probably be unable to quote a study or statistic yourself thereafter.

Even more useful than statistics are “facts”. Both statistics and facts, separated from their context, can be twisted in nearly any direction desired. An isolated fact is called a “factoid”. By only using the factoids that support your position, and avoiding related factoids which do not, you can make any assertion seem “logical”, although logic was left wounded and dying when the argument began. This is also called “partial truth”. Correlation of factoids is a rich field for mining support for your position. Correlation studies are even better because of the weight that studies carry in an argument. Of course, just because you can correlate two things, does not mean that those things are really related at all. But if you don't point this out, most people are not going to recognize it. The nature of a statistical correlation allows you to twist it so that any component of the correlation can be used as a causation of some other component. As a simple example, consider a correlation between overweight individuals and dieting. Most people who diet are overweight, and perhaps most people who are overweight also diet. This is a strong correlation. You could use it to indicate that dieting causes people to be overweight. Of course, this example is so obviously incorrect that it should never be used in a real argument. However, most correlations are well suited to this kind of manipulation.


8. Accusations

If you are aware of these techniques of aruging, you can note them when used by your opponent and point out where his statements have failings. Of course, your opponent will likely do the same thing to you. If this happens, counter-accuse your opponent of the same techniques that he accuses you of. For instance, if you are accused of being purposely vague, be ready to respond with an example of how your opponent was just as vague on some point. If you cannot point out the same flaw in your opponent, the next best thing is to point out some other flaw. The implication is that your opponent's flaw negates your own. There are two schools of thought on the timing of the use of this technique: you can either use it pre-emptively (especially before you have provided examples your opponent can use against you) or to wait until your opponent accuses you and then counter-accuse. Which timing you use will sometimes be decided for you by your opponent; otherwise, you must judge when best to use it under various circumstances. Here, experience is the best guide. Keep in mind, however, that if you are counter-accused, you can always counter-counter-accuse, and so forth.


9. Stream of consciousness

The idea with this technique is to prevent your opponent from saying anything at all. This is accomplished by making point after point without any pause for as long as possible. If you have good presence of mind and no shame, you can use this technique. At some point, your opponent will get tired of waiting for you to stop and will begin to interrupt. When this happens, simply raise your voice so that you are louder than your opponent. When he does the same, raise your voice even more. This is not a good technique if you are unable to raise your voice as least as much as your opponent. Also, without breaking your stream of argument, remark on how rude your opponent was to interrupt you.

10. Lack of Evidence

Citing a lack of absence of evidence as proof of an absence is a common argument technique, although deeply flawed in that it is not true. Equally flawed is equating evidence with proof. Of course, you can speak out of both sides of your mouth by using evidence to “prove” one point, and the lack of evidence to “disprove” another.


Advanced Techniques

The main advanced technique is the combination of two or more of the basic techniques. As a simple example, consider the following: "This is a good movie because millions of people liked it". This makes use of both techniques 1b and 2. It uses "good" without defining what qualifies as a "good movie", and follows with the support of a large group of people who agree with the first point. An even more advanced example is "This is a good movie because millions of people liked it and it even won an Academy award". In this case you have simultaneously used a large group ("millions of people") and an elite group (those who make the awards), along with word vagary.

Organization of the multiple techniques you use in a statement has less to do with grammer and more to do with the strength of each individual technique. Place the weaker points first. The last point made in the statement should be the strongest. This is because the more recently something is said the more it is remembered, all things remaining equal.

Misdirection is so effective in arguments because most people do not possess much mental discipline. It is thus easy to mislead or confuse them as described earlier. Also, most people believe what they want to believe, despite (or because of) the evidence. For instance, try proving the existence of God, or Evolution. Yet, you can find many people who will defend those beliefs in an argument because they are issues of faith. But you can use these same beliefs against these very people, because most of them lack the intellectual integrity to admit that it is an issue of faith. Of course, if they do admit it, then you can point out the lack of proof – regardless of the evidence.



For the humor impared, I am not actually suggesting that people use these techniques. This is a form of writing where the point is made by expressing it from the opposite point of view. I do not recommend arguing at all.