Why Arguing Doesn’t Work—and What to Do Instead

Updated: Feb. 12, 2021

Arguing can be counterproductive. Instead, try motivational interviewing, a tactic used by therapists to help people broaden their views.

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Motivational interviewing: How to argue smarter

We live in a world of table-flipping and screaming talk show hosts, Twitter rants, and Internet echo chambers. In an ideal world, everyone would be civil with disagreements solved coolly and quickly. But these days, it seems like people are more polarized than ever, with ever more extreme views becoming normalized. This, unsurprisingly, can lead to a lot of arguments—big ones. (Here’s how to stop fighting with your partner.)

Want to reach someone with an opposing viewpoint? Step one: Stop arguing, start motivational interviewing.

This therapy-based approach involves active listening, empathy, and eliciting the motivation to consider other viewpoints. “An argument is when people talk at each other, not with each other,” says Risa Stein, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. “Nothing is accomplished through arguing—except maybe more arguing,” says Stein, who is author of Best Damn Life Workbook: Create Your Own Personally Fulfilling Life Path.

Motivational interviewing means you forget about “winning” an argument.

“If your goal is to resolve a disagreement then you should start by having an open discussion,” she says, adding that sometimes changing even a single word represents a huge attitude change. “It moves you from feeling combative to curious.” Good communication is one of the characteristics of a healthy relationship.

Here’s what our experts want you to know about the difference between an argument and discussion, how to keep your cool, and how to use motivational interviewing, a technique therapists use to help broaden someone’s views.

(These are the arguments that may end relationships.)

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What is motivational interviewing?

This special technique, developed by psychologists William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, that some therapists use to help people work through difficult topics and make big mental shifts. Called motivational interviewing, it uses gentle and empathetic questions to guide people to resolve ambivalent feelings and find motivation to change their thoughts and behaviors.

Done right, it can be highly successful in reaching people diametrically opposed to you—or hell-bent on maintaining unhealthy habits like smoking or heavy drinking; it can even help people leave an abusive relationship, change careers, lose weight, and more.

A study published in the British Journal of General Practice analyzed the results of 72 randomized controlled trials and found that motivational interviewing was about twice as effective in producing positive changes than other types of advice-giving. This was true for both psychological and physical goals.

The technique is traditionally used by trained therapists in a counseling setting, as it works best when done by someone who doesn’t have anything personally invested in the issue or the relationship, Stein says. It’s not exactly geared toward solving arguments, but it can be helpful in getting both parties to see other points of view and become more motivated to work together. There are some useful ideas you can take away from motivational interviewing to improve your communication skills.

One caveat: You should know that this is not a manipulation tactic or a ninja mind-meld you can use to trick someone into doing what you want. If you go into it with that motive, it won’t work and you’ll risk causing a lot of damage to your relationship, Stein cautions.

(These are the phrases that can make an argument worse.)

Tips inspired by motivational interviewing techniques

Question yourself first

Before you even think about questioning someone else’s beliefs, figure out your own values and motivations first. What do you believe is true about this subject? Does this subject trigger painful feelings from your past? What is important to you about having this discussion? Your goal should be simply to increase understanding and goodwill in communicating.

“Start with an open mind—yours, not theirs,” saysVijayeta Sinh, a supervising psychologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “No hidden agendas! This has to come from a place of genuine curiosity and compassion for it to work.” (Here’s how to tell if you have empathy.)

Ask if they are considering changing their point of view

Motivational interviewing is only effective for people who are open to possibly changing their mind or at least learning more about a subject. First, ask whether they’re open to such change. If their answer is a hard no, then you need to respect their decision and end the discussion. If they agree to keep an open mind, you can proceed.

“Motivational interviewing is about taking people from the pre-contemplation stage to a contemplation stage and then action,” Stein says. That is, you’re just trying to get them to think about thinking about changing.

Start with empathy

Motivational interviewing begins with you trying to see an issue from the other person’s point of view and expressing empathy for their struggle. Do your best to be nonjudgmental regardless of your personal feelings, says Sinh, who is also the founder of Therapy Couch in New York City, which also offers online therapy to individuals and couples. For example, if you are arguing with someone about whether the 2020 election was stolen, you can say something like, “It is a really scary thing feeling like the country is out of control. I can see why you’re upset about this.”

(Try these empathy exercises.)

Stay in discussion mode

People in arguments often wind up feeling hurt, unheard, disrespected, frustrated, and angry. These feelings make it very hard, if not impossible, to have a real conversation about higher-stakes topics like politics, religion, or the latest virus news, Stein says. (Avoid these annoying speaking habits.)

Once you give up the goal of changing the other person’s mind, then you can get somewhere. There are many good reasons to have a discussion, particularly about a topic that is so big or so heated that previous attempts at talking about it have failed. The goals of the discussion may include sharing feelings, learning new information, allowing both parties to feel heard, finding common ground, or finding a solution or compromise.

Establish a shared higher purpose

Even with strong disagreements, it’s possible to find a shared higher belief, Stein says, so try beginning from this common ground. In the election conspiracy example, the underlying belief both of you hold is that you love your country and want America to be safe and have effective leadership. True, the details will be different, but it’s important to start from shared ground.

Your instinct may be to avoid talking about triggering topics with friends and loved ones. However, says Sinh, avoiding all confrontation can actually hurt your relationship by limiting your communication. Plus, there are some topics—like whether or not to get the Covid-19 vaccine or move the family across the country—that need a resolution.

Always start by asking the other person how they feel about discussing this particular topic. “Both people need to have buy-in to the conversation or it won’t work,” says Sinh. (Here’s how to build trust in your relationship.)

Ask the right questions

Motivational interviewing starts with asking questions designed to get people to think more deeply about their beliefs and give them motivation to change (or at least think about changing). Some questions you can ask:

  • How did you first learn about this?

  • How does it make you feel?

  • What do you like about this? What do you not like about it?

  • What past experiences does it bring up for you?

  • How does it affect your life now? Do you feel concerned about the effects?

  • Where are you getting your information? Do you feel like it’s accurate?

  • What are things you don’t know about this but wish you did?

  • What fears do you have?

  • What are other viewpoints you’ve heard?

Actively listen to the answers

Despite the name, motivational interviewing is much more about listening to the answers than the questions themselves, Sinh says. You can show you are truly listening by repeating back to them what they said, asking follow-up questions, making eye contact, having open body language, and not interrupting. These are just some of the things that all good listeners do.

One thing you shouldn’t think too much about? Your counterarguments. This isn’t a high school debate competition. The whole point is to guide them into deeper thinking and questioning, not to force them to accept your rebuttal, Stein says.

Consider both types of arguments

People use both intellectual beliefs (facts) and emotional reasoning (feelings) when sharing their point of view. It’s important not to get too hung up on the “facts.” Pay attention to the emotional undertones of the conversation as well, Sinh says. For instance, instead of arguing and trying to disprove their evidence of election fraud, recognize their underlying fear and confusion. (It may also be helpful to know when someone is lying to you.)

Be open to further discussion

Difficult conversations aren’t usually a “one and done” deal, Stein says. This is especially true for people dealing with deeply entrenched beliefs. Changing these beliefs can take a lot of time and work. Make sure the other person knows you are open to talking about this further when they are ready.

What if it still doesn’t work?

Not being able to come to an agreement isn’t a failure, so show yourself compassion. Tough conversations are tough for a reason. “Don’t see this as a failure. Any positive communication is a win,” Stein says. “It’s about planting the seeds in their mind, and you never know if they’ll think about it later.”

If you still need a resolution—either for practical purposes or to maintain your sanity—seek out professional help, like a therapist trained in conflict resolution, a professional mediator, a clergyperson, or another neutral third party, Stein says.

Next, here’s how friends relieve stress and help us cope.