You Can’t Win an Argument

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Shortly after the close of the war, I learned an invaluable lesson one night in London. I was manager at the time for Sir Ross Smith. During the war, Sir Ross had been the Australian ace out in Palestine; and, shortly after peace was declared, he astonished the world by flying halfway around it in thirty days. No such feat had ever been attempted before. It created a tremendous sensation. The Australian government gave him $50,000; the King of England knighted him; and, for a while, he was the most talked-of man under the Union Jack—the Lindbergh of the British Empire. I was attending a banquet one night given in Sir Ross’s honour; and during the dinner, the man sitting next to me told a humorous story which hinged on the quotation, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”

The raconteur mentioned that the quotation was from the Bible. He was wrong. I knew that. I knew it positively. There couldn’t be the slightest doubt about it. And so, to get a feeling of importance and display my superiority, I appointed myself as an unsolicited and unwelcome committee of one to correct him. He stuck to his guns. What? From Shakespeare? Impossible! Absurd! That quotation was from the Bible. And he knew it!

The story-teller was sitting on my right; and Mr. Frank Gammond, an old friend of mine, was seated at my left. Mr. Gammond had devoted years to the study of Shakespeare. So the story-teller and I agreed to submit the question to Mr. Gammond. Mr. Gammond listened, kicked me under the table, and then said: “Dale, you are wrong. The gentleman is right. It is from the Bible.”

On the way home that night, I said to Mr. Gammond: “Frank, you knew that quotation was from Shakespeare.”

“Yes, of course,” he replied, “Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2. But we were guests at a festive occasion, my dear Dale. Why prove to a man he is wrong? Is that going to make him like you? Why not let him save his face? He didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t want it. Why argue with him? Always avoid the acute angle.”

Always avoid the acute angle.” The man who said that is now dead; but the lesson that he taught me goes marching on. It was a sorely needed lesson, because I had been an inveterate arguer. During my youth, I had argued with my brother about everything under the Milky Way. When I went to college, I studied logic and argumentation, and went in for debating contests. Talk about being from Missouri, I was born there. I had to be shown. Later, I taught debating and argumentation in New York; and once, I am ashamed to admit, I planned to write a book on the subject. Since then, I have listened to, criticized, engaged in, and watched the effects of thousands of arguments. As a result of it all, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument ~and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes.

Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants being more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right.

You can’t win an argument. You can’t, because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph. And——-

“A man convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still.”

The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company has laid down a definite policy for its salesmen: “Don’t argue!”

Real salesmanship isn’t argument. It isn’t anything even remotely like argument. The human mind isn’t changed that way.

To illustrate: Years ago, a belligerent Irishman by the name of Patrick J. O’Haire joined one of my classes. He had had little education, and how he loved a scrap! He had once been a chauffeur, and he came to me because had been trying, without much success, to sell automobile trucks. A little questioning brought out the fact that he was continually scrapping with and antagonizing the very people he was trying to do business with. If a prospect said anything derogatory about the trucks he was selling, Pat saw red and was right at the man’s throat. Pat won a lot of arguments in those days. As he said to me afterwards: “I often walked out of a man’s office saying: ‘I told that bird something.’ Sure I had told him something, but I hadn’t sold him anything.”

My first problem was not to teach Patrick J. O’Haire to talk. My immediate task was to train him to refrain from talking and to avoid verbal fights.

Mr. O’Haire is now one of the star salesmen for the White Motor Company in New York. How does he do it? Here is his story in his own words: “If I walk into a buyer’s office now and he says: ‘What? A White truck? They’re no good! I wouldn’t take one if you gave it to me. I’m going to buy the Whoseit truck,’ I say: ‘Brother, listen, the Whoseit is a good truck. If you buy the Whoseit, you’ll never make a mistake. The Whoseits are made by a fine company and sold by good people.’

“He is speechless then. There is no room for an argument. If he says the Whoseit is best and I say sure it is, he has to stop. He can’t keep on all afternoon saying : ‘It’s the best,” when I’m agreeing with him. We then get off the subject of Whoseit, and I begin to talk about the good points of the White truck.

“There was a time when a crack like that would make me see scarlet and red and orange. I would start arguing against the Whoseit; and the more I argued against it, the more my prospect argued in favour of it; and the more he argued, the more he sold himself on my competitor’s product.

“As I look back now I wonder how I was ever able to sell anything. I lost years of my life in scrapping and arguing. I keep my mouth shut now. It pays.”

As wise old Ben Franklin used to say:

“If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will”.

So figure it out for yourself. Which would you rather have: an academic, theatrical victory or a man’s good will? You can seldom have both.

The Boston Transcript once printed this bit of significant doggerel:

“Here lies the body of William Jay,
Who died maintaining his right of way—
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.”

You may be right, dead right, as you speed along in your argument; but as far as changing the other’s man’s mind is concerned, you will probably be just as futile as if you were wrong.

William G. McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, declared that he had learned, as a result of his crowded years in politics, that “it is impossible to defeat an ignorant man by argument”.

“An ignorant man?” You put it mildly, Mr. McAdoo. My experience has been that it is all but impossible to make any man—regardless of his I.Q. rating—change his mind by a verbal joust.

For example, Frederick S. Parsons, an income-tax consultant, had been disputing and wrangling for an hour with a government tax inspector. An item of $9,000 was at stake. Mr. Parsons claimed that this nine thousand was in reality a bad debt, that it would never be collected, that it ought not to be taxed. “Bad debt, my eye!” retorted the inspector. “It must be taxed.”

“This inspector was cold, arrogant, and stubborn,” Mr. Parsons said as he told the story to the class. “Reason was wasted on him and so were facts. . . . The longer we argued, the more stubborn he became. So I decided to avoid argument, change the subject, and give him appreciation.

“I said: ‘I suppose that this is a very petty matter in comparison with the really important and difficult decisions you are required to make. I’ve made a study of taxation myself. But I’ve had to get my knowledge from books, You are getting yours from the firing line of experience, I sometimes wish I had a job like yours. It would teach me a lot.’ I meant every word I said.

“Well, the inspector straightened up in his chair, leaned back, and talked for a long time about his work, telling me of the clever frauds he had uncovered. His tone gradually became friendly; and presently he was telling me about his children. As he left, he advised me that he would consider my problem further, and give me his decision in a few days.

“He called at my office three days later and informed me that he had decided to leave the tax return exactly as it was filed.”


This tax inspector was demonstrating one of the most common of human frailties. He wanted a feeling of importance; and as long as Mr. Parsons argued with him, he got his feeling of importance by loudly asserting his authority. But as soon as his importance was admitted, and the argument stopped, and he was permitted to expand his ego, he became a sympathetic and kindly human being.


Constant, the head valet in Napoleon’s household, often played billiards with Josephine. Constant says on page 73, Volume I, of his Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon: “Although I had some skill, I always managed to let her beat me, which pleased her exceedingly.”

Let’s learn a constant lesson from Constant. Let’s let our customers and sweethearts and husbands and wives beat us in the little discussions that may arise.

Buddha said, “Hatred is never ended by hatred but by love”, and a misunderstanding is never ended by an argument, but by tact, diplomacy, conciliation, and a sympathetic desire to see the other person’s viewpoint.

Lincoln once reprimanded a young army officer for indulging in a violent controversy with an associate. “No man who is resolved to make the most of himself”, said Lincoln, “can spare the time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take the consequences, including the vitiation of his temper and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you show no more than equal rights; and yield lesser ones though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.”


Therefore, Rule 1 is: