How to Win Friends and Arguments

Effective leaders, happy couples, and strong families – what makes them different?

Fragility and Relationships

It’s not the everyday small talk, collaborative problem-solving, or fun times that build strong relationships. These say nothing about the relationship’s fragility. It’s what happens when the relationship is tested. All relationships are tested with time. Shocks are bound to emerge through mounting disagreements that put strain on the connection. Eventually these shocks are confronted.

What makes effective leaders, happy couples, and strong families different is how they approach conflict. It’s the ability to navigate through hard conversations and take them to their natural conclusion. Those who have strong relationships are able to address conflict, speak honestly, and listen. They know how to maintain emotional alignment.

Winning is not succeeding

We all want success in our arguments. The problem is that the idea of winning an argument is often confused with being “right”. If your idea of winning an argument is being right rather than succeeding, you’re wrong.

We’ve all been there. Whether if it’s with a coworker, a friend, or a loved one, we’ve experienced what it’s like to have a friendly conversation go terribly wrong. What seems to be a rational conversation turns into one person completely shutting down while the other forces their “convincing” argument. One feels like they’ve won because they were “right”, while the other pouts with a cold shoulder.

Shared Emotional Alignment

You don’t succeed in an argument by outwitting and conquering your counterpart emotionally. You feel like you’ve won, but you surely haven’t succeeded. Though it may feel good, beating your counterpart into silence or feet-dragging agreement is not success. You succeed by coming to a mutual understanding and reaching emotional alignment.

Emotions are information. When you observe them in another, you learn a lot about them. What makes them happy, angry, or sad shows what’s important to them. Emotions are extremely informational and can run hot in conversation. They engulf you and your counterpart when it matters most. People get burned.

Conversational Trial and Error

Errors are good

Simply, trial and error is building from the ground up. You build a strong foundation by finding what works, and more importantly, throwing out what doesn’t. When you find what works, you exploit optionality. You take the option to move forward with the favorable result. When you find what doesn’t work, these are errors. They provide vital information. You discover the erroneous path and can avoid it.

You engage in trial and error whenever you cook. Each iteration gives you the chance to experiment with an ingredient or method. If you are happy with the result, you have the option to repeat it next time. If the choice of cooking wine doesn’t satisfy your taste buds, you avoid using it. A family recipe learned from grandma is extra special – it has endured trial and error through generations. It’s no wonder most family recipes are simple. They have gone through the process of removing the non-essential hundreds of times.

Hard conversations are another form of trial and error. You cross a line that causes your counterpart to feel unsafe. As with other types of trial and error, these errors are not mistakes. They are discoveries. They reveal areas of disagreement, miscommunication, and misalignment. They show the path to disaster. When most people discover this path, they become trapped and unable to break free.

Error Recognition

These errors manifest as emotions in different ways. They are divided into two categories – silence and violence1.


Silence is obvious. They no longer feel comfortable contributing to the conversation. They stop answering questions and no longer have anything to say. Their desire to be in the conversation fades along with their eye contact.


People express violence differently and at varying intensities2.

Some start using tactics to push their views. Unaware they’ve crossed a line, they begin to force their logic. They yell passed their counterpart. They spell out numbers, lecture cause and effect, and use examples to prove a point. Others use sarcasm or name-calling, directing it at the topic or at their counterpart.

Most have a default way they respond to the feeling of being threatened. They lean towards silence or violence. The dynamics of a relationship sometimes changes this, but most favor one of these responses.

When emotions begin to manifest through these behaviors, we’ve discovered an erroneous path. Staying on this path will not lead to success. Just like in any trial and error, you must recognize the error, acknowledge it, and restart from where things were working. From there, you must find a different path. 

Error acknowledgment

It can take enormous emotional strength to realize you’re in a tough conversation and need to navigate from it. We all succumb to our natural instincts to be right. Being wrong is painful. It’s ingrained in us. To our ancestors, being wrong meant life or death.

It’s only after you recognize you’ve taken the wrong path can you start repairing.

When you notice the signs of silence or violence, acknowledge it. Remember what you truly want for yourself, your counterpart, and your relationship. All are important. Being able to answer those questions honestly will help you act in a way that will lead you to mutual success.

Ask yourself , “Do I want to be right or do I want to be successful?”

They’re not the same.

What is it that you really want? If you keep acting the way you are, will you get it?

Apologize sincerely

It takes two to walk down the wrong path. If you want to succeed, you must have the humility to give up being right. Your internal dialogue may still be debating how to convince the other person. If your desire to be right is greater than your desire to have a productive conversation, your apology will not be sincere.

We all can tell when an apology is fake. It’s in our gut. If you’re not ready to offer a sincere apology, you haven’t realized your part in creating the mess. You’re a part of the conversation, and so you are also responsible for the loss of emotional alignment.

Admit your mistakes

After apologizing sincerely, clarify the difference between what you want and what you don’t. What you meant and what was heard is often different. Whatever the case, the emotional alignment between you and your counterpart diverged somewhere. One of you either felt like they couldn’t contribute to the conversation, started forcing themselves into it, or just felt misunderstood. It’s not the time to blame, but it is time to recognize that breaking emotional alignment wasn’t the intention.

Apologizing and clarifying the difference in intentions usually doesn’t work at first. Emotions are a strong force. When you or your counterpart are seeing red, it’s hard to see the sincerity in others. Recognizing this defensiveness in your counterpart means you haven’t brought the conversation back to safety yet. You may need to re-clarify your intentions in different ways, adjusting for what you hear.

Rebuild and Reiterate

“Seek first to understand then to be understood”

– Stephen Covey

Often times, your counterpart feels they are not being heard. Finding that you or your counterpart are saying repeating the same ideas is a sign that there is a lack of mutual understanding.

Showing you understand is the gateway to being understood.

You’ll know when your counterpart feels like they’ve been heard. You’ll feel it in their tone, response, or change in direction. This doesn’t mean you’re free to continue down the same path. A new one must be forged together. First, take the time to listen. Let them share (you can mirror and label to build and confirm understanding3). Slowly rewind and break it down to areas where you both agree.

Forging a new path

As you proceed, patiently let the dialogue build. When your counterpart feels understood, logical and rational discussion can resume. You may have to apologize and clarify meanings when you observe signs you’ve violated safety.

You are now repeating an iteration in trial and error. The difference is you both now have a deeper understanding of each others’ wants, and more importantly, what you don’t want.

Remember what you want for yourself, your counterpart, and the relationship. This will guide your actions away from failure and towards mutual understanding.

Doing is better than knowing

Baking a pizza (with or without pineapple) is different from memorizing 100 recipes.

Getting through a workout is different from knowing a dozen routines.

Treating a diabetic patient is different from knowing the treatment guidelines of diabetes.

And handling emotions during tough conversations is vastly different from reading tips and tricks.

Many struggle with hard conversations all their life. They have trouble recognizing when they get defensive. Their focus narrows to the topic at hand, failing to look at the big picture and HOW information enters the conversation. They don’t know they are approaching conflict, then suddenly find themselves deep in it. The expression of pain through silence or violence is a vicious trap, but remembering what success looks like brings the clarity needed to move forward.

Arguments are won through the heart, not through the mind

When we have fiery confrontations and disagreements, the result depends on how we handle flammable emotions. Being able to feel our way through crucial conversations is a skill. Like any skill, it needs practice. The practice is not in having better reasoning or logic than your counterpart. It’s in recognizing one’s own emotions, your counterparts’, and then genuinely communicating them. You may not find yourself with the outcome you were initially looking for, but instead discover different, more interesting solution

Thank you for reading!

So what do you think? Where does this hold true and where does it fail?

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  1. Patterson, Kerry, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. McGraw-Hill, 2012.
  2. I’m not talking physical violence here.
  3. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It. Random House Business Books, 2016.

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