How to Win an Argument

Debate Annoying Family Members like a Pro This Holiday Season

This holiday season we all can count on a few things to mark the occasion. Families will gather, turkey will be served, and perhaps most dependable of all, arguments will erupt. At least one person always seems to be at the table—let’s call him “Uncle Schlub”—who, after a glass of wine or two (or four), starts pontificating about a topic that is better left alone, particularly when large carving utensils are close at hand.

If you have ever relished the idea of putting Uncle Schlub in his place, or at least getting him to come around to an opinion other than his own, then you are in luck. M.L. Sandoz, senior lecturer in communications studies and director of Vanderbilt’s debate team, has a few tips for you.

Named the SEC Debate Director of the Year in 2011, Sandoz has coached Vanderbilt’s team to recent national championships in all three debate divisions (novice, junior varsity and varsity). She also is the winner of the 2012–13 Chancellor’s Cup, which is given annually to a faculty member for “the greatest contribution outside the classroom to undergraduate student–faculty relationships.”

So, when Uncle Schlub next gets on his soapbox, follow the advice below and embrace the essence of debate—“two minds meeting and moving to a greater understanding together,” as Sandoz puts it. Or, if that’s too much to ask, just take pleasure in skewering the poor sap—with your newfound debating skills, that is.


1. Start on common ground.

Nate Williams

“Figure out where you and your opponent both stand on the topic,” Sandoz says. “At some point along the way, there’s an assumption that one of you has but the other doesn’t. That should be the focal point of your debate—where the divergence occurs.”

2. Ask questions and listen.

“Once you’ve decided to engage, it’s important to get your opponent to clarify his position,” she says. “You should ask questions and then paraphrase back what you’re hearing. He might not be able to articulate his position as well as he thinks he can, and you could chalk up a small victory in the process.”

3. Pick your battles.

“Not every argument is important,” Sandoz says. “Often a debate will consist of multiple smaller arguments, some of which you can concede. You don’t have to win every point in order to win the debate.”

4. Remain civil.

“Avoid statements or behaviors that increase the level of defensiveness in your opponent, and also try to control your own level of defensiveness,” she says. “For instance, you wouldn’t want to address your crazy uncle as ‘crazy.’”

5. Accept limits.

“Most people don’t change drastically because of a single conversation or a single debate,” she says. “You may wish that your crazy uncle would really see the world your way, but it’s probably not going to happen. And if it does happen, it’s going to happen in small steps.”

TEXT BY SETH ROBERTSON

ILLUSTRATION BY NATE WILLIAMS