The Simple Secret to Winning Any Argument, According to a Harvard Psychologist


The secret to winning an argument? For starters, don't think of it as a zero-sum game. 

Or so says renowned social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to learn more about the person you're fighting with and you'll come out on top — or maybe even both parties will win.

Cuddy, who became a household name after her 2012 TED Talk on how our body language shapes our psychology went viral, spoke at the 92Y in New York City on Jan. 22, during which she tackled the issue of conflict. 

The social psychologist was in conversation with Susan Cain, author of bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking when she fielded an audience question on how to successfully navigate an argument. 

"So, I guess I would say when you walk into those situations that have a lot of conflict in them, maybe the first thing to do is to be present enough to allow the other person to speak first, to ask them how they're feeling — can they explain, from their perspective, what's going on? — to give them the floor first," Cuddy said. "You're not giving power away, you're actually allowing them to feel seen and understood."

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Cain pushed her. "What about that moment when they're saying something you actually find to be incredibly objectionable and incorrect?" the moderator asked. 

"I think you have to bite your tongue. I do, I think you have to wait," Cuddy responded.

"And let them finish?" asked Cain, to which Cuddy affirmed:

Yes, because first of all, when you respond in that moment of anger, you're not going to respond well. And if you let them get through it, you're going to get a little bit more information about what that really is about. And maybe then you do pause and say, 'I need to step away from this for a minute,' but I am not good at this. This is really a challenge for me.

Cuddy explained dealing with conflict remains one of her greatest challenges and she, too, has fallen victim to the reflexive or defensive desire to dominate a situation by dominating the discourse. This is something she discusses in her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. But, Cuddy argues, there is perhaps more power to be found in relinquishing that need to dominate than in trying to stranglehold it. 

It's also likely to foster more understanding. 

"I think letting the other person speak first helps enormously because that helps build trust and rapport by doing that and you gain information and you're not responding too quickly."

Watch Cuddy speak here: