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Holiday Survival Guide: This is How to (Properly) Argue with Your Drunk Uncle

by Gregory D. Welch 8 months ago in advice
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7 tips to help you win the debate

Photo by Mukhina1 on 123rf.com (used with permission)

You probably shouldn’t argue with your family during the holidays, buuuut if you do, here’s how you do it right.

Look, let’s be real, we all have that one (or ten) family members that just get under your skin after a few too many eggnogs. Am I right? And they tend to follow a sort of unspoken pattern to carry out their plan for ultimate pain-in-the-assness.

So, if you’ve had enough of their endless rants about this and their unfounded arguments about that, or any number of anti-fact approach to debate, here’s how to win the argument.

It’s called rhetoric and it’s the metaphorical Wheaties of philosophical giants all through history.

Rhetoric is the art and craft of argument and debate. And not always in the sense we’ve come to know those words to be in our highly charged world with all of its powder keg possibilities either. A good argument is as much art as it is craft and all of it with the intention of persuasion — of changing minds and bringing ideas into reality.

“Logos, ethos, and pathos appeal to the brain, gut, and heart of your audience.” (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing)

When your drunk Uncle gives that look that says he’s ready to rumble, rhetoric is your toolbox for how to handle the situation. Think of rhetoric as your way to not only respond but to anticipate, and not only as your ability to argue with your mouth but your whole body. Yes, good rhetoric is a bit of showpersonship, not to say that it’s all acting and pretending, but sometimes a bit of theatrics is called for.

The rules of Rhetoric as they apply to winning arguments with family members through the holidays:

№1: Control the frame, it’s like niching down but for debates.

Good rhetoric is all about the art and craft of controlling the debate. More than the facts, the figures, or the fancy turns of phrase, it’s how you frame everything that decides who controls the debate.

“Argument’s Rule Number One: Never debate the undebatable. Instead, focus on your goals.” (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing)

Do you accept their terms or do you build your argument in such a way that you control the heartbeat of the debate?

№2: Control the issues.

Similar to controlling the goals and the frame of the debate, control the issues. Don’t just accept whatever is offered to you in the debate, but be brave enough to repackage it and define the issues on your own terms. This is how you help your audience connect with your key ideas and points that your debate is ultimately about.

“Control the issue. Do you want to fix blame? Define who meets or abuses your common values? Or get your audience to make a choice? The most productive arguments use choice as their central issue. Don’t let a debate swerve heedlessly into values or guilt. Keep it focused on choices that solve a problem to your audience’s (and your) advantage.” (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing)

It’s all about solving problems for your audience, and if all you’re doing is accepting the definitions of the core issues and flowing with what the other person in the debate presents with you, you’re failing your central job as an arguer of ideas.

№3: The power of a figure of speech.

Ok, ready for some magic? You can use the power of figures of speech to take the steam away from your opponent in the debate. Try it, it’s as simple as saying what you expect your opponent to say about you, but owning it and showing it as a good thing instead and then not lingering any longer with it.

“These two sentences (“Good idea? I believe it was.”) form a figure of speech called a hypophora, which asks a rhetorical question and then immediately answers it. The hypophora allows you to anticipate the audience’s skepticism and nip it in the bud.” (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing)

All great debating comes back to this core idea, you don’t have to accept the terms your opponent presents you with. Flipping the script and using the power of a good one-two-combo of a figure of speech with a solid rhetorical question can get you out of a tight spot in a debate and can help you shift the entire thing in a new direction. Try it, see how it works.

№4: Authenticity wins the day.

Be human. This is the one thing so many people get wrong when debating. They think that in order to have authority, to convey knowledge, and to build trust you have to have all of the facts, but guess what, you don’t. In fact, the best way to build trust is to own the limits of what you do and don’t know. It gives what you say you know greater credibility and it builds trust like nothing else can.

“We have been taught that a successful persuader never admits ignorance, but the Romans saw doubt as a rhetorical device. They called it aporia: wonder openly or admit you cannot fathom a reason, and the audience will unconsciously start reasoning for you. Without even knowing it, they comfortably get inside your head.” (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing)

Winning debates come down to winning hearts more than minds alone, and in order to do that, you have to find ways to get your audience to root for you. That’s even more difficult when you’re debating family during the holidays because the family is rooting for the family, right? But a little bit of human grit and rough-around-the-edges honest sure makes what you’re saying even more believable because it makes it more authentic.

№5: Great debaters are great storytellers.

This one is simple but powerful. Stories change everything. Nothing that has ever been built got there without a damn good story to carry it. Nothing. Everything we’ve made as a species was first an idea and then grew once we turned it into a story. The same is true for winning debates.

“When you want to change someone’s mood, tell a story.” (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing)

Stories are magic, they can change the atmosphere, shape people’s opinions deeper than any collection of facts (they give facts their meaning), and can alter the mood of a person, an audience, or an entire dinner if you know how to use them to do so. Spend time preparing for arguments, debates, and persuasion by first spending time with stories. This is how you win the long game.

№6: Make the argument comfortable for everyone (even when it’s not).

If you want real superpowers in any debate or argument, look for ways to tie things to your audience’s reality and what they know and are comfortable with. This isn’t about inauthenticity but taking time to be authentic in another person’s world. You want to say things not just in a way your audience understands intellectually but understands emotionally as well.

“Rhetorical labeling is all about commonplaces. If you can define an issue in language that’s familiar and comfortable to your audience, you will capture the higher ground. What does your audience hold most dear: Safety or risk? Lifestyle or savings? Education or instinct?” (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing)

It all comes down to how you define things, what labels you use and how you frame them. If you want earned power in an argument, do this with intentionality and connect your points with the points your audience already know, understand, experience, believe, and are living out at this very moment. Don’t just speak the language, but show your audience that you understand it at a deep level.

№7: Own what you don’t know and you’ll earn the right to keep making your point.

People have an excellent nose for B.S. more often than not, and the more you try to trick your audience, the less likely they’re going to tolerate the smell. Look, if you don’t know something, own it, give it the pause it deserves, and then move on. If you don’t, you risk losing the debate and seriously hurting your credibility. But if you’re already feeling your heart pick up and your stomach flop just thinking about how to do this, don’t worry, there’s a smart way to do this and look good while you do.

“For defense, when you don’t know what to say, try conceding, then redefining your concession. (“You could say it’s spinach, yes. Others would say it’s broccoli.”) Finally, switch the tense to the future. (“But the question is, how are we going to get that vegetable down you?”)” (Jay Heinrichs, Thank You for Arguing)

The way to own your ignorance on something is to be real and upfront about it and know how to make a pivot. This means going back to labels, definitions, and reframing things. If you don’t know something, say so, then pivot to what your audience knows through a smart redefinition of the thing you don’t know. If it were just a matter of tricking the audience, you’d have to remember things, but because it’s about being bold in your authenticity and genuine in your desire to connect your point to them and what they know, all you have to do is be present, and keep it real.

But because I don’t want to be on Santa’s naughty list (I have bills and I’m hoping he stuffs my stockings with Benjamin’s, OK?) I should probably give this Holiday disclaimer.

No matter how smooth the eggnog, how great the Bourbon Ball candies taste, or how much Uncle Eddie really pisses you off, it’s the holidays. Celebrate the quirks, love the seemingly unloveables in your family, and hit pause to look in a mirror. Little pieces of each of them live somewhere inside of you.

That doesn’t mean you should accept any unhealthy mental situations from flamboyant loudmouths who just happen to share blood with you, but it does present you with an opportunity to love bigger and grow more deeply into the person you want to become. Give the gift of grace and mercy during the holidays and keep your vibe high no matter how much you want to throttle some family members.

In the end, the ultimate way to win any argument is to choose not to have it in the first place.

Do you have a plan of engagement for those tense moments with family members who like to argue during the holidays?


About the author

Gregory D. Welch

Kentucky poet & scribbler. Inspiring creatives to live a creative lifestyle. Creating with courage, passion, & purpose-fueled growth. Progress over perfection.

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