The key to winning an argument is to not start one at all.
In 2004, amidst George Bush and John Kerry’s heated US presidential election campaign, an Emory University professor of psychology and psychiatry named Drew Westen took MRI pictures of people’s brains as they watched video footage of their favourite candidates contradicting themselves.
The experiment, which Westen wrote about in his book “The Political Brain,” showed that, when people begin to feel their worldview is under attack, the parts of their brains that handle reason and logic go to sleep, while the parts of their brain responsible for our fight-or-flight response light up. (Eric Barker goes into more detail about this research in this article.)
As Harvard Business School lecturers John Neffinger and Matthew Kohutobserve observe in their book, “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential,” when a discussion becomes an argument, it’s no longer an exercise in logic and reasoning. “If you’re trying to win over someone whose natural allegiance are not with you, getting into an argument is a sure way to fail,” they write.
So how do you get your point across without ever inflaming someone’s natural defences?
Dr. Michael McNulty, a master trainer from the Gottman Institute and founder of the Chicago Relationship Center, tells Business Insider the key is to use what psychologist and couples counselor John Gottman calls a “gentle start-up.”
Gottman spent 40 years researching exactly what goes into healthy relationships, and he posited in his book, “The Relationship Cure,” that the same principles that make marriages work also hold true for many other kinds of relationships.
To use the “gentle start-up” technique, McNulIf explains that, when you want to express a complaint or concern to a partner or colleague, you should do so in a positive manner, avoid blaming language, use mostly “I” statements, and discuss your perspective, feelings, and needs.
This template is a good example of how you would phrase a concern: “When X happens or happened, I feel Y and I need Z.”
Here’s how you might ask for a raise using the “gentle start-up” technique:
“When I look at my credentials and how hard I am working and compare my salary to others in my field…
“I really feel discouraged.
“I feel worried about my family’s financial future.
“I feel kind of sad, because I want to stay here.
“I like the people and the company.
“I do not feel like my contributions are seen or understood.
“I feel resentful.
“I need my salary to be reviewed.
“I need a higher salary.
“I need the opportunity for bonuses or profit sharing.”
“This technique is so helpful in relationships of all kinds,” McNulty says. “It helps to guard against the tendency that people feel to justify their feelings and needs so much so that they come off as critical or blaming the other person before they are able to express what they feel and ask for what they want.”
The opposite of this technique is what’s called a “harsh startup,” which almost never works. “If partners start a conversation in a negative manner, 97% of the time that conversation will end negatively,” McNulty says.
In a salary negotiation, this might sound like: “You and this company just don’t seem to care at all about my needs. How am I supposed to support a family on this? Who knows how anyone gets a raise around here anyway? If something does not change, I am gone!”
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