Get the upper hand in arguments

February 1, 1997

Pharmaceutical Representative

Discuss and debate with confidence.

It has probably happened to you before: Someone with opposing views has, through the sheer force of personality, overwhelmed you in a discussion or argument. Or, despite your best efforts, you couldn't make headway against someone who managed to collect a flurry of convincing data and evidence in support of a position you oppose.

In discussions or debates like these, you need to get the upper hand or, at the very least, bring more equilibrium into the discussion. Only by building momentum for your arguments can you hope to convince others of the validity of your ideas. Through a few strategically chosen words or gestures, successful speakers can make this happen. With a little practice, so can you.

Next time your ideas are being steamrolled by an over-powering opponent, use one or two of these techniques to gently turn the tide of discussion:


•Â The explanation inquiry. Hold up your hand and force a pause in the discussion. Prod the speaker to elaborate on his or her views. Ask for explanations or elaboration. By revealing a lack of understanding of the speaker's ideas, you subtly force other listeners to question those ideas as well.


•Â The data inquiry. In most instances, asking for data is a reasonable and prudent request - and is perceived as such. More important, this request can force the attention of listeners on the need for substantiation of the speaker's views. You can start it off with a simple question: "Can you give us more data on the issue?" Or: "Have you conducted a literature search on this?" Or: "Do you have any statistics and case studies demonstrating the accuracy of this point of view?"


•Â The strategic testimonial. Bring the words or views of an expert into your argument, and you've produced an indirect endorsement of your views for your listeners. "Before you make a decision on this matter, you should consider the ideas of Dr. Smith," you might suggest. This statement forces your listeners to at least ponder Dr. Smith's views - and perhaps to research them as well. Dr. Smith, by the way, doesn't need to be present.


•Â The third-party devil's advocate. Using this technique, you'll force the speaker to acknowledge what others might say about his or her views. "What do you think Dr. Lee would think about this idea if she were here?" you might ask. The speaker may then acknowledge the sentiments of prospec-tive opponents in front of the audience, and perhaps, the validity of those sentiments.


•Â The fidgety movement. Noticeable bodily movement at your seat focuses attention away from the speaker and onto you. Examples of fidgety, but strategic, movement: intense note-taking or sudden shifts of your body. Without realizing it, listeners become curious about your thoughts.


•Â The inquisitive gaze. An impassive, slightly puzzled look and a slight tilt of the head convey volumes. "That doesn't sound quite right," your body is shouting.


•Â The physical barrier. By consciously placing a perceived physical barrier - a table, desk or other obstruction - between you and the speaker, you set yourself apart in the minds of listeners. Under some circumstances, it can even foster a sense of equality between you and the speaker.


•Â The mighty costume. When two speakers are intently discussing an issue in front of other listeners, the speaker who is dressed more formally will often command more attention and respect. So prepare your wardrobe in advance.


•Â The stand. A standing speaker can command more stature than a sitting speaker. By positioning your body, you effectively position your ideas.


•Â The coordinated gesture. When you make a key point of your own, use coordinated gestures. Move your arms together in a systematic arc, for example, or draw imaginary lines in front of you with your fingers. These measured gestures reinforce the seriousness and gravity of the points you're making.


•Â The weakness probe. Rather than suggest the weaknesses of an opponent's views yourself, ask the speaker what he or she sees as the weakest link in his or her argument.


•Â The distraction gambit. Yes, it's rude and should rarely be used. But certain gestures subtly force listeners to shift their attention from the speaker to you. These include intense gazes, tapping of pencils, drumming of the fingers or scratching the neck. Listeners wonder what you're thinking.

The side conversation. While another slight breach of etiquette, you can quickly attack a debatable point by launching a whispered conversation with somebody near you. If more emphasis is needed, add a few gestures to the conversation.

At first blush, these attention-getting techniques might appear purely manipulative. But they're not. Skilled speakers and debaters use them to gently force attention on the critical points they wish to make.

You can do the same. The result: a resolution of the problems your listeners are concerned about and a more thorough airing of the issues that affect you. PR