The Art of Argumentation: How Fostering a Growth Mindset Can Make You More Influential

Most of my sessions this past week revolved around the recent Black Lives Matter protests, focusing on my clients’ desires to successfully defend their positions and influence others. Some had liberal positions, which I almost completely agreed with, and others were more conservative in their rhetoric. Unfortunately, I found that most of my clients struggled with healthy discourse, believing that they needed to win arguments in order to get their points across.

One of my clients, who’s a bright sixteen year old boy, took the conservative stance of law and order, finding empathy for the police force and little of it for the protestors. What makes him unique in this realm is his limited willingness to engage in conflict; winning an argument isn’t important to him. To him, it’s more significant to maintain the integrity of his own perspectives; therefore, even if he surrenders, he likely won’t internalize the opposing position. And, those who care more about winning than his intellectual development often erroneously believe that they affected his thinking in some profound way.

There are certain truths that are obvious to him, such as the immorality of ransacking a brick and mortar convenient store owned by immigrants who didn’t deserve to be mistreated. If you’re set on winning, you may tell him that fighting for their rights is much less important than police brutality, thus dismissing his stance. And, as soon as you’d finish making your point, he’d tell you that you’re right and you’d win the argument. However, internally, he’d maintain his view. And, the fault, to some extent, would be your own because, rather than helping him grow and learn about others’ perspectives, you shut him down in a condescending manner, implicitly informing him that his obvious truth isn’t true, in turn causing him to discontinue to take you seriously.

He does this because he doesn’t want to be controlled by some outside entity who doesn’t care about his well-being, or at least doesn’t care enough. When we argue with others, even when we’re right, our lack of patience indicates an egotistical desire to conquer and subdue rather than to inform and influence. And, my client picks up on all of that because he’s had a lifetime of others focusing on what was best for them rather than on what he wanted.

However, if you were to afford him that victory, losing ground by assenting to his obvious truth (or at least accepting the validity of his reasoning for it), he’d view you as a fellow traveler who not only wants to help him learn, but who also respects him enough to take his perspectives seriously. All of this is to say that influencing people requires a high level of humility that entails the ability to say, “You’re right about that” or “Your thinking makes sense.”

A fixed mindset, one in which we believe that we already know everything (or can’t know any more), prepares us for battle: you and I both can’t be right. But, a growth mindset, wherein we accept that our information base is constantly evolving, allows to respect others in discourse while hoping to learn from them as much as they do from us. In a nutshell, the growth mindset affords one humility (an accurate representation of one’s strengths and limitations) in the belief that, despite how much you know, you’re just as fallible as ever. But, our egos do well in pushing others away. Conversely, they also succeed in launching perpetual conflicts.

Another client of mine, whom I frequently agree with, uses his knowledge base as a bludgeon, to whip others into shape. His goal is to influence for the purpose of winning. Even though he’s often right, at least in my opinion, the way he presents his points turns people off and makes them feel inferior. So, as you can imagine, he doesn’t get the opportunity to change beliefs as others either run away or double-down; aggression is frequently met with aggression.

The nature of positions and perspectives is often subjective, meaning that black and white, right or wrong, thinking shouldn’t be applied. (In cases that include racism, sexism, ableism, and anti-Semitism, they’re more objective in that most would take a particular stance.) So, returning to my initial client, his view is that innocent people and their property should never be unjustly harmed. And, while it’s easy to devalue his specific stance about the immigrant business owner, we’d be foolish to think that doing so is objectively just. There’s a difference between an explanation, which describes the source of an event, and a justification, which indicates why some action was ethical or had a good reason behind it. The former implies an objective truth, while the latter is subjective. Thus, if you were to tell my client that his stance is unethical, he’d, at least internally, disagree with you. But, if you accepted the inherent subjectivity of the difference in what is and isn’t justified behavior (for most actions at least), acknowledging the reasonableness of his conclusion, you can then help him empathize with your perspective on justifiable behavior.

Despite knowing this, I often struggle with hubris; maturity is a practice, not a destination. And, in order to commit ourselves to social harmony, we have to accept that, sometimes, others will have good reasons for their positions. If you were to simply attempt to make someone else feel inferior, you may succeed, but your success will entail a low likelihood of acceptance. For, my client wouldn’t actually believe that you’re right; he’d just believe he was bad at arguing his point.

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