In politics, business, love and war, we’re tempted to reduce all conflicts to a winner and a loser. By doing this, we imply that one side’s argument (or army) defeated the other soundly.

In reality, this rarely happens.

That’s because the margin between victory and defeat is often just a few votes, words, dollars or bullets. Fight that same fight again tomorrow and anything could happen. So unless you’re a unanimous victor, all being the “winner” really means is that you were momentarily more effective than your competition.

And that’s just how we achieve objective success. When it comes to wars of public opinion, some of those can be neverending.

In these kinds of conflicts, debates, or campaigns, you’re rarely competing in terms of resources, money or power; you’re competing for the understanding and sympathy of the indifferent people caught in the middle of two extremes.

So how do you win?  By selling your version of reality.

Trading Data for Smiley Faces

In a perfect world, we’d all use facts and figures to agree about the relative importance of X and potential dangers of Y.  But in reality, no one agrees on anything.

This is because people are biased, they’re susceptible to first impressions, they don’t communicate clearly, and they reject new information that conflicts with their preconceptions.

(Don’t feel bad about this, by the way. Our biases are natural. Even our political affiliations may be partly genetic. And knowing that we’re biased doesn’t stop us from acting biased. So instead of ignoring these influences, we look for ways to use, reroute, or disrupt them. You could say that marketing is literally the field of bias exploitation.)

But we also fail to agree because we each perceive a different reality.

Doubt it? Think about the word “boat.” I guarantee you that if we each drew what we were thinking about, neither of us was picturing the same thing. Then realize the difference if I say “ship,” or “vessel.”  If common language is this divisive, it’s amazing any two people are ever on the same page.

So the good news is, you never need to convince anyone that you’re “right.” You just need to convince them that the alternative (voting for your opponent, buying your competitor’s product, losing the war, loving someone else more than they love you) will be worse for them in the long run.

Cynical? Maybe, but it’s hard to argue with proven success.

So the next time you’re debating politics, arguing with a client, or fighting with your lover, stop and examine the situation impartially.

More often than not, you’ll discover that the disagreement has nothing to do with which side is “right,” but with which side is more afraid of what might happen to them if X occurs.

Are their fears rational? Are your solutions practical? Surprise: neither of those answers matters. That’s because — given our linguistic and perceptual differences — it’s unlikely you’d both agree 100% even if you each said the exact same thing.

The truth is, convincing someone else that you’re “right” is irrelevant. What really matters is convincing the other person that your point of view is better for them.

This is how we market, it’s how we sell, it’s how we win elections, and it’s how we find reasons to keep fighting even when logic tells us we should quit.

So the next time you need to convince your boss, your coworkers, your customers, or your family that your way is the “right way, focus less on data and more on how you being right would help them feel better.

… and then deliver on that promise, so they won’t have a reason to disbelieve you in the future.


Chris Hall · November 11, 2009 at 11:58 pm

Nice. Totally happened to me today… so great timing. I had to step back and understand the other person’s frame of reference, which was different from mine.

Thus the debate.

As a project manager, I’ve had to train myself to listen for subtle nuances in the way people use words. And I’m not afraid to interrupt somebody to clarify exactly who they’re talking about when they use pronouns liberally. (Do you mean us as in me and you, us as in our department, or us as in the company?)

The best is when people think they’re in agreement, part ways, and then find out weeks later at a deadline that they had a different idea of what the boat was supposed to look like… ;)

Anonymous · November 11, 2009 at 3:54 pm

I don’t agree with your statement, “liberals tend to see opportunity at every turn, while conservatives tend to see everything that can go wrong”.

Liberals often can readily see what could go wrong if conservative values are set in motion, and conservatives can find plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the weak and poor and promote a religious agenda at the same time. ;-)

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[…] In all things — from art to war, sex to enchiladas — there are winners and losers, even if it’s usually a matter of opinion. But complete worthlessness is as mathematically unlikely as total perfection. Most of us — […]

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This post was mentioned on Twitter by JustinKownacki: The Other Guy Didn’t Win; You Just Failed to Convince People

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