5 Steps to Winning the Argument at Thanksgiving

Most think debates should be avoided. I say embrace them and win.

Do a Google search of “Thanksgiving Dinner Debates” and you’ll get a plethora of articles teaching you how to avoid debates. This article gives you five steps to win them.

Unless you find turkeys and football to be exciting conversation. Go for it. But don’t be surprised if someone brings up kneeling during the anthem, or the “murder” of the turkey. The politicization of all-American ideas like football and turkey is unavoidable nowadays.

As a debate coach, I’ve been a student of persuasion for over 20 years. In my early days of study, I would ignore arguments raised by relatives at the Thanksgiving table. Are you blessed with family that all agree with one another? Probably not. We all have the “Uncle Billy” in the family who never seems to play along with the “avoid religion and politics rule” the peacemaker of the family set for Thanksgiving dinner.

I’ve learned to embrace it, but with mastery of persuasion. I make sure I always win the argument. I nearly hesitate to share with you these persuasion techniques, because then my family will be onto me. For the sake of humanity and peaceful Thanksgiving dinners, I am showing my cards and letting you in on how to win Thanksgiving dinner debates.

1. Remember Who You’re Persuading

This often is not the “Uncle Billy” in your family. If you have an ornery old geezer who barfs up racist-sexist-homophobic-whatever epitaphs (or any annoying claim that gets people riled up), remember that that relative isn’t the one you need to impress upon. Consider the others in the room. What will they glean with your argument?

This is something I train academic debaters to remember. A debate round will commence, but the debaters are never trying to convince their opponents. New debaters quickly realize that it is the judge in the room — the quiet one with a ballot — who decides who wins. Your opponent, in fact, is set up to disagree with you, so give it up. Uncle Billy isn’t going to be persuaded.

But your kids will. Or cousin, niece/nephew, sibling. They’ll be watching to see how you treat the old guy. If you belittle Uncle Billy, they very well may hold that against you. So, remember who you’re persuading, and don’t be so naive to think it is the one whose opinion will never change.

2. Avoid ad Hominem and Straw-manning

An ad hominem attack means “on the man.” Calling someone at the dinner table “stupid” or any other derogatory label is never okay. I suspect you already know that. You wouldn’t be interested in persuasion if you are the kind who attacks another with name calling.

A Straw Man is a little trickier, and amateur persuaders tend to think it is excusable. They may not call Uncle Billy “stupid,” but they’ll blurt out that whatever he said as “stupid.” Notice the slight difference? You didn’t call Uncle Billy stupid, just his idea stupid. That’s not okay, either.

This would be straw-manning your uncle. It won’t persuade Uncle Billy, and the rest of the relatives will not appreciate your enlightened (so called) argument. It isn’t a genuine or accurate analysis of an opinion, even if you do think the opinion is stupid. A Straw Man is making your argument out of straw, essentially ignoring the real argument, and trying to look good by pounding your opponent down. Like a man made of straw, you find it easier to knock down a “stupid” idea, rather than dealing with it directly.

Refer back to step #1, because those relatives who are observing your straw man will likely find you a bit repulsive. You won’t be persuading anyone.

3. Find “You’re Right” Opportunities

Nothing sounds better than hearing “you’re right” from a person you’re debating. Persuaders realize that when they hear “you’re right,” they’re on your way to winning the debate. It is music to the ears of the persuader.

Expert persuaders take this a step further and actively look for opportunities to say, “You’re right,” to their opponent. This is because of a psychological phenomenon known as “reciprocation.” This comes from the Latin verb reciprocare, meaning “move back and forth.” When you offer something to someone, they feel the need to “reciprocate” and respond similarly.

So, if Uncle Billy is rambling on about whatever he heard on public or talk radio, listen carefully to find something you can affirm. When you hear it, shout it out: “By golly, Uncle Billy, you’re right!” Guess what? Uncle Billy will feel obligated to say the same back to you, hopefully with something more important in the debate.

4. Recognize That You May Be Wrong

This one is similar to #3, but even stronger. When you admit to Uncle Billy that not only he was right about something, but that you were wrong, you are very close to persuading him. Trust me on this one. It works!

On the surface, this appears to be conceding. But, to the master persuader, it is a gateway to bigger issues that actually matter. Master persuaders don’t need to win every fact or tit-for-tat. They need to win the greater argument, the debate. Resist the temptation to pounce on Uncle Billy for getting a few facts and figures wrong. And when you’re called on a few false facts, be quick to say, “You’re right…I was wrong.”

This is so incredibly powerful that master persuaders will sometimes intentionally throw in errors just to bring attention to what they want to bring attention to. I kid you not! Scott Adams, the cartoonist of Dilbert and a trained hypnotist, explains in is book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a world where facts don’t matter that he intentionally called the book “Win Bigly.” It forced people to rethink the inaccuracy of the title. If you were to correct him and say, “It should be ‘Win Big League,'” it gives him the opportunity to explain what he meant and why he chose the title. Which is exactly where persuaders like to be: explaining in more detail that which they want to explain.

Ultimately, you want Uncle Billy to say the same thing. This plays into reciprocation just like “you’re right,” but I believe it does something even better. It persuades you. Again, this appears like conceding, but shouldn’t be seen this way. When you are able to admit you’re wrong about something, and you are able to adjust your thinking to be more right, guess what? You become much, much better at persuasion.

This is what people who forbid debates or who are adverse to argumentation (as if debating and arguing is inherently mean or cruel) just don’t understand. Ironically, I have found anti-debate folks to be the most stubborn people I have ever known. They dig their heels into the ground on whatever opinion they have and refuse to ever utter, “I’m wrong.” It is as if their opinion is holy ground and they have some secret channel to the truth of the universe.

I believe this is old-fashioned sinful pride. As a debater, always be open to the fact that you may be wrong. This won’t make you susceptible to losing debates. Persuaders — good ones, at least — recognize this as a necessary disposition to winning debates.

5. Practice “Tactical Empathy”

This is higher-level persuasion. If you can pull it off, your Thanksgiving dinner debate will likely be an exhilarating experience. If you master this, you will find your relationships with others will be incredibly deep and fulfilling.

Tactical empathy is a technique explained by FBI negotiator Chris Voss in his excellent book Never Split the Difference. Voss is an expert on hostage negotiations. If you can possibly show your opponent that you care deeply about his opinion, even if it is faulty and wrong, you will be able to persuade him. In other words, if you make it your point to understand where your adversary is coming from, you will end up with him concurring to your demands.

This is a heck-of-a-lot more persuasive than proving you’re right. I’ll go so far as to say that no facts or figures, warranted authority, or argumentative syllogism will come closer to persuading than the right amount of tactical empathy. That’s saying something, because I’m a debate coach who values logic and research more than most, but I still say tactical empathy is more persuasive.

Take our imagined (or not so imagined) Uncle Billy, for instance. Rather than challenge his assumptions or made-up facts or whatever, what if you asked tactical questions? Consider…

  • “Why do you feel this way?”
  • “What makes you have such an opinion?”
  • “How have you come to that conclusion?”

Allow Uncle Billy to explain himself. You may find that his original, loony claim has some substance to it. Perhaps a personal story will come out, and you’ll find that Uncle Billy isn’t as crazy as you once thought. You may even find that you relate to “crazy” Uncle Billy more than you originally judged.

This may sound wishy-washy to you. If it does, you may be lacking in the empathy department. Try tactical empathy at dinner on Thursday. You’ll be amazed how it will transform dinner table arguments into in-depth, amazing conversations about things you would have never imagined possible in your family.

Mastery of these techniques is like magic. Your Thanksgiving dinner debate has the possibility of lasting much longer than you had planned. People won’t want to leave the conversation. The teenagers will want to sit with the adults. Everyone will feel listened to, engaged with, and respected. Ultimately, they will leave dinner feeling loved and appreciated. They will certainly look forward to next year’s Thanksgiving dinner with you.

And, perhaps, they will have a changed mind about whatever you challenged them on. Which is exactly what persuasion is meant to do.