Dale Carnegie’s communication classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, is still a relevant plea for respect and humility in interpersonal relationships. At the top of his list entitled “Twelve Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking” is the admonition to steer clear of arguing as a method of persuasion. For Carnegie, arguing simply doesn’t help anyone achieve their communication goals. With each impassioned exchange, people only entrench more deeply in their opinions until even the most compelling and rational evidence will not change anyone’s mind. A recent Cornell University (2016) study on social media influence patterns seems to support Carnegie’s point. The researchers found that if the arguers’ minds are not changed after the fourth exchange, further attempts at persuasion are futile. Beyond the fourth exchange, it’s less about the either person’s edification and more about the arguer’s need to be and feel right. I’m sure you can think of exceptions to the rule but for the most part the fourth exchange guideline is intuitively and now empirically pretty accurate.
In counseling, I tend to use a more subjective measure for encouraging people to know when to “just let it go” and when to press forward in a discussion. The following are some thoughts for knowing when to stop the debate and start talking about something else. I’ll use the four exchange concept as a structure for my version.
· Before the First Exchange: Don’t even start your discourse if you are in anyway trying to teach another adult a lesson. This is especially important when engaging your spouse, grown children, colleagues, pastor, professor or boss. Teaching other adults a lesson patently does not work. It is annoying and condescending. If you have a point to make, just make the point. People don’t learn lessons by being humiliated, manipulated or tricked. Really. Let the “I was just trying to teach you a lesson” concept go. It only creates alienation and hard feelings.
· After the Second or Third Exchange: Let’s say you are a few point-counter-points into a conflict. The give and take should continue if you can honestly look at the other person and imagine hearing him/her exclaim, “You’re right! No one has ever explained this like that before. Thank you so much for this insight.” Truly, if you can’t imagine any version of that response coming from the other person, stop. This is especially important in sequels to former arguments on the same topic. If those words of gratitude and enlightenment are never gonna happen, it’s time to let it go and walk away.
· After the Fourth Exchange: Aside from ego gratification, why would anyone want to continue after the fourth unsuccessful exchange? I believe either of two conditions could hold you in the debate. First, if you legitimately wonder if the other person is confused about your position then stay on board. Generally, people who know you, know what you stand for on most topics will not miss your point. If you’re like me, you have never been coy or ambiguous about topics near and dear to your heart. People just don’t have to read between the lines with me. But, if there is a remote chance the other person misunderstands your position, then by all means, persevere in the debate. This isn’t so much about being right as it is about being understood. But after you’re assured the other person gets it and agreement is not forthcoming, you can move on with a clear conscience.
The second condition to keep you in fray after the fourth exchange is the realization that you’re actually wrong and the other person is right. Gulp. It happens. During those times your best response might be the one I mention in my After the Second or Third Exchange heading. Just admit, “You’re right! No one has ever explained it like that before. Thank you so much for this insight.” That really hurts coming out but will definitely win that person as a friend. And really, isn’t that the point?