You get passionate about your point of view. At some point, it turns into a heated argument with someone who feels differently from you. You probably feel desperate, like your opponent is a barrier between you and happiness, between good and evil, and that person can’t be reasoned with.
Imagine someone you’ve had this experience with. I’m sure you can easily envision the fights you’ve had.
I’ll bet that when things get intense, you either fight harder or break off the conversation.
Both of those choices will almost certainly lead to failure. Nobody is changed, everyone is angry, and relationships are damaged. But you have a third choice that could lead to better results: validate your opponent.
- Tell your opponent where you agree. “Okay, you have a good point there. It’s interesting that we agree on so much but differ in our conclusions.”
- Restate the parts of the other person’s argument that you understand without explaining why he or she is wrong. “I think I get it. You’re saying that you are so confident Fact A is true that you would stake your health and reputation on it. Correct?”
- Give up graciously on your weakest points. “While I still believe Fact B, you’ve made a strong case against Fact C. I can see where you’re coming from, and I won’t bring that up again. Thank you.”
- Admit fallibility while staying committed to your purpose. “I’m not saying that my conclusion is the end of the subject. I’m saying that it seems to be the best solution with everything I know now, and I’m willing to hear your side to put it to the test.”
You’ll get much further (and have more friends.) I’ve been formally trained in mediation, negotiation, persuasion, marketing, sales, public speaking, rhetoric, and debate. And while that doesn’t make me infallible (nobody is a perfect communicator,) I have some insights to offer.
Avoid entrenching your enemy
First off, validation helps prevent causing a Backfire Effect. This is where you rattle the other person so badly that he or she fears that you’re attacking the fundamental beliefs that make life work. Your opponent then becomes more committed to their side the harder you argue because whether you’re right or wrong, you’re a threat to the fabric of life as it is now.
On a biological level, survival is more important than “finding the truth” or “being fair,” so don’t trigger that survival instinct in others.
Secondly, even when a belief is not fundamental to your opponent’s identity, very few people want to look like a fool. When you invalidate 100% of what your opponent says, you’re implicitly attacking his reputation as well as his argument. After all, what kind of idiot brings nothing but illogical thoughts, incorrect facts, and irrational feelings to an argument? Who lives that way?
Don’t make your opponent feel like that. Once you do, it’s his or her biological obligation to fight you to retain a shred of dignity. If you’re out to destroy your opponent, he or she has nothing to lose. Being wrong can’t be worse than what you’re putting that person through. You can never convince that opponent that you are correct. You will never change the behavior without brute force at that point.
This isn’t a new idea, and it applies to physical combat in a similar way:
“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” -Sun Tzu
Validating your opponent will make you a better human being
People don’t want a bad person to win, even if he or she is logically right. If your opponent or audience perceives you to be brutal, cruel, or invulnerable, then you have to be defeated on principle. On the flip side, you’re also choosing not to be brutal or cruel, which is intrinsically valuable if you’re a decent human being.
Even if you believe your opponent to be horrible, a decent human being would not crush that person vindictively or excessively. It’s a sign of transcendence and putting wisdom and justice ahead of pride and retribution.
Validating your opponent might also cause you to realize that you were actually wrong, saving you from defending a bad point. And while I’m sure you’ll have a perfect explanation for why you stuck by that wrong point at first, a good person would not want to defend something wrong because it’s intrinsically destructive. It makes the world a worse place.
We can’t always be right, and that’s forgivable, but when it’s easy to check ourselves by doing something like validating our opponent in an argument, there’s no excuse for failure except being a crappy person.
Plus, giving your opponent credit might help you more wisely pick your battles. You might realize that, while you’re still correct, your opponent’s viewpoint isn’t nearly as dangerous or impactful as you thought before. You can lay down your weapons, saving the energy for another day and possibly winning others to your side by making peace with theirs.
Lastly, building good will with your opponent and any bystanders will sometimes make your argument more compelling. The emotional component can’t be ignored. But how does this make you a better person?
If your argument is correct, then you’ll want that message to reach others at any cost… even your pride. By choosing a mild approach even when you feel righteous enough to blaze a warpath, you’re putting the value of sharing goodness ahead of your own sense of authority.
Validation can also be used for manipulation. Avoid doing that.
I don’t want to give you weapons for doing harm, but I won’t ignore the reality, either: you can validate your opponent maliciously.
By hand picking your opponent’s bad ideas and agreeing with them, you may persuade him or her to commit to a weak or false point that will break down later under scrutiny of facts or logic.
You can also use validation to build your opponent’s ego and take down his or her guard.
There’s a major issue with these tactics, though: Your opponent will eventually realize what you did, and will push back later. You can’t create lasting positive change through manipulation.
Give genuine praise. Make honest concessions. Admit to actual faults. Seek to understand. You’ll be more convincing, happier, and better as a human being. And with any luck, you’ll make the world a better place.