We live in an age that capitalises on the adversary in the argument. While the concept of debate originally focused on the collaborative pursuit of truth, our era views it much more as a battle between opponents resulting in a winner and loser.
The novelist Robin Sloan describes how this radical perversion of the purposes of debate reveals how our modern culture has “given up on debate as a tool for changing minds or achieving consensus. Instead, we use it as a stage for performance, for political point-scoring.”
Given our contemporary approach to argument, dinner table debates can become especially fraught and can have divisive effects far beyond what might justified. While they are often a funny but feared element of family get-togethers, for many they can be genuinely anxiety-inducing and damaging to relationships.
In anticipation of this, here are 3 things to keep in mind as you head into such conversations this holiday season.
1. Aim for Affinity
In reflecting on the interpersonal cost of our modern adversarial approach to debate, leadership author and high-profile American pastor Andy Stanley puts it well when he suggests that “in any relationship, when one person wins, the relationship always loses.” Founder of the Fuller Brush company, Alfred Fuller, knew this when he famously said, “Never argue. To win an argument is to lose a sale.”
When we seek to persuade others to consider our ideas and opinions, the goal must not be the win. Because while we may win the point or trump our opponent’s argument in that moment, if our victory has come at the cost of the other’s dignity or the relationship we have with them, ultimately we have both lost. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that genuine persuasion has occurred.
The decision we all need to carefully make is whether we are more interested in making a point or making a difference. We can win argument but lose ability to influence depending on the way we engage with others.
2. Voice the Other’s View
Former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss suggests that the key element in building affinity is truly listening to the other party and summarising their perspective for them. “You especially want to focus on articulating any negative thoughts they have,” says Voss. This can be as simple as calling out what the other person is likely thinking or saying about you and the situation. You want to start out articulating their negative thoughts about you or the situation.
Articulating the very opinions and beliefs you are looking to challenge may seem counterintuitive, and Voss recognizes this. “Some people think that acknowledging how someone is upset allows them to dig in more. But it’s the opposite. As soon as you articulate the other side’s point of view, they are a little surprised. You’ve made them really curious to hear what you are going to say next. And you’ve made them feel that you are in this together.”
In any high-stakes interaction, it is vital to not deny or dispute the other person’s position or opinion. Affinity is not about being heard by the other person, it’s about them making sure they feel heard and understood. “And a person who feels understood is getting a feel-good wave of chemicals in their brain. Once they get a hit of oxytocin, everything is going to change. They’ll feel bonded to you. And if they feel bonded, whether it’s a little or a lot, that’s to your advantage,” says Voss.
There’s a lot we can each learn from the tools and tactics of hostage negotiators like Chris Voss. Psychologist Jo Pierre also affirms these attempts at recognising the other’s perspective and suggests this is especially important when addressing deeply entrenched views or beliefs. “Changing ‘hearts and minds’ shouldn’t be about arguing and trying to convince the other side,” says Pierre. “Instead, discussions should start with empathic listening and validation.”
3. Disarm With Self-Deprecation
There are few things as disarming and endearing than self-deprecation. Not only can it diffuse tense moments with humour and light-heartedness, but it exhibits a level of humility that is antithetical to the egotism and grandstanding that often emerge during debates. It sets the stage for a discussion that is not about a winner or loser, but a collaborative effort between human beings.
If an interaction gets heated or voices started getting raised, Voss recommends interjecting with an admission like “I am being an idiot.” He suggests using “the strongest synonym you can: idiot, jerk, something stronger.” Naturally, this takes a good measure of humility and self-discipline – it is much easier to attempt to justify yourself and make your point. However, doing so may see you win the point-scoring battle but lose the persuasion ‘war.’
Such blunt self-deprecation is able to disrupt the argumentative trajectory of the conversation and reroute it towards something more optimistic and sincere. It is also undeniably endearing and invites the other to view you not as an opponent, but as an honest, vulnerable and likable ally – and who wants to argue with a likable ally?
Holiday season get-togethers may come with some relational risk, but the dinner table debates may not need to be dreaded as deeply as they are. Often, diffusing a debate, winning over the other, and keeping the peace can be achieved with a good dose of empathy and decent portion of humility.
Best wishes for your holiday season!
 Stephens, M. 2020, ‘Ever wondered how someone could possibly believe their own words?’ The Canberra Times, 23 May.
 Pink, D. 2012, To Sell is Human, Riverhead Books, New York, p. 198.
 Bernstein, E. 2020, ‘Worried about a difficult conversation? Here’s advice from a hostage negotiator,’ The Wall Street Journal, 14 June.
 Pierre, J. 2018, ‘Flat earthers. Conspiracy thinking on a global scale,’ Psychology Today, 5 July