How to Win Every Argument by Mehdi Hasan

Every now and then I come across a book that I know will be an interesting read, and Mehdi Hasan’s “How to Win Every Argument – The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking” is one of those books. There are four parts to the book and each part provides a solid road map to help the reader get better at communicating, in whatever manner they choose to do so. Although I would definitely recommend the book to other readers, it is not without a little bit of criticism. Here are my thoughts about each part.

Part 1

Out of the book’s four parts, the first section was the only section where I had outright rejections for some of the proposed suggestions.

The first bit of advice in this section is arguably the most important and that is that it is important to know your audience and who you are addressing.  Your approach needs to be reflective of the demographics you are addressing. Another bit of advice that is quite important is the emphasis on listening, which reminded me of a Stephen Covey quote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”, and how what people are saying is just as important as what they are not saying. Without listening, you are almost guaranteed to miss your mark and the effectiveness of your message will drop drastically.

Nevertheless, there are suggestions that I thought were downright ineffective.  Things like feelings outweigh facts, or that it was important to tell people what they wanted to hear so that they could feel good, and a quote that suggested “Only an idiot would dismiss ad hominem arguments.”

Personally, when it comes to feelings, yes, they matter, and, no, they are not always rational, but a person is better served using emotional labelling techniques, that is telling the person what emotion you believe they are feeling, than they would be stretching truths. The benefit of emotional labelling includes demonstrating to the other party that you have in fact heard, understood, and acknowledged their feeling, and it builds rapport without making concessions that would otherwise require you to risk your credibility and authenticity.

What identifying and vocalizing does is it applies a label to peoples’ emotions, and it demonstrates insight and empathy on the speaker’s part.  By labeling peoples’ fears and anxieties, it brings them out into to the open and it demystifies them, which makes the entire experience easier to digest, and it becomes possible to replace negative emotions with positive ones that are more solutions-driven. These are less my thoughts and more what the FBI most famous hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, suggests that we all do when it comes to addressing the elephant in the room.

But are we doing people a favor when we tell them what they want to hear to make them feel good? I say no. If we are talking high-stakes situations with real ramifications, then it is important that we tell people what they “need” to hear, not “want”. It reminds me of Chris Voss’ story about his first time working suicide hotlines and how he thought he did amazing on his first call, only to find out that it went terrible. The explanation that Voss provides is that he focused on making the other person on the other side of the phone feel better about themselves, but that positive feeling quickly dissipates when the person hangs up and is all alone again. In short, it is far more important to lead people to a necessary outcome than it is to tell them what they might want to hear, and you demonstrate a level of respect for them when you choose to be direct with them.

The start of chapter 4 begins with a quote by Tom Whyman, ”Only an idiot would dismiss ad hominem arguments.” Among other things, the chapter also goes on to talk about ‘challenging’ another person’s character, but really the focus is on attacking. These suggestions are poor advice because what we tend to see is that people will try to destroy another person’s reputation under the guise of elevating character, in order to get what they want. However, none of us is ever a complete judge of another person’s character because every person is the product of their environment and a sum of their experiences, with far more to them than our eyes can see. Two people can chase the same objective and be effective at it without ad hominin attacks. Go after the idea, not the person.

Part 2

The second section will likely be the most insightful part for people who are trying to get a better idea on debating, persuading, and public speaking because it goes over the basic building blocks and leaves readers with a blueprint for how to proceed. The “rule of three” is a key concept for those unfamiliar with the science behind public speaking and Hasan did a great job providing readers with specific scenarios that relates to the skills he is referring to including a references to John J. Rambo.

The only chapter that I somewhat disagreed with was chapter 9 and the use of two quotes to emphasize the importance of “zingers”. Zingers are quoted as being important because they can “help establish one’s superiority over a rival,” and “by making our enemy small, inferior, despicable, or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him.” However, for those of us lucky enough to live in Canada and America, the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we actually have enemies or if these are just people with opposing views. The answer to that question should be the latter, then we need to ask ourselves whether people with opposing views are inferior and despicable, and if we should aim to have superiority over them or if we want to work with them to help them overcome the intellectual error that has us standing across from one another. Once again, the answer to that question should be the latter, because there is no bad thinking that can not be fixed with better thinking.

Part 3 and 4

The second half of the book was the best part of the book because Hasan discusses the importance of confidence and preparation.  To my surprise, Hasan also touches on the RAMF (Resting Angry Muslim Face), a problem that I thought that only people from Eastern Europe struggled with, more commonly known as RBF (Resting Bitchy Face). So, be prepared for some laughs that are squeezed in between solid advice.

When it comes to discussing confidence, it is a gamechanger.  But nobody is born with confidence, since there is nothing inherent about it and it is something that is developed over time. As babies, all of us enter the world anxious and crying before we develop an extreme attachment to our mothers. Over time, we gradually start to get comfortable with being away from our parents and become confident being on our own, but that takes time. Similarly, whether someone wants to become a better debater, persuader, or public speaker, confidence does not magically enter into our body but it does arrive when we work on becoming experts at whatever it is that we are chasing.

One suggestion that is made by Hasan that I disagree with is “faking confidence”. Although faking stuff may work for some people, like Steven Seagal and his claims about his martial arts prowess, we are better off acknowledging any shortcomings we see in ourselves and working on them than we are by trying to act as if they do not exist. In fact, I would argue that every public figure who says “fake it till you make it” only does so because they are insecure about sharing the “insecurities” that they had to deal with before they got to where they are now, because doing so would make them vulnerable. It might have something to do with “society” telling us that being vulnerable is a sign weakness, but Superman has always recognized his vulnerability to kryptonite, and it has never stopped him from saving the day.

Instead of “faking it”, I would recommend that readers listen to what UFC champion Jon Jones said about fighting Francis Ngannou on Steve-o’s podcast Wildride, all of which is a synonym for developing confidence. “It’s very simple, get comfortable with the worst-case scenario.”, “You get really comfortable with that idea, and it becomes real easy.”, so drop the fakeness and embrace authenticity. Ask yourself what you are willing to do, address whatever challenge you may be facing and how far you are willing to go to overcome it.

Another important point touches on preparation and the different levels to preparation that exist. For instance, there is preparing your speech, which involves researching, writing, framing, and memorizing, but then there is also preparing how you connect with your audience, which involves how you look, sound, and speak, and knowing your opposition, which involves knowing how they think, what they believe, and what they have said. To sum it up, there are so many levels to preparing that we will never see our favorite speakers engage in because it happens behind the scenes and when nobody is watching.

An excellent starting point.

Mehdi Hasan is one author who quotes movies and popular culture more than I do, and I sure did enjoy the references throughout his book. Overall, this is one book that definitely delivers, just like the title says, albeit I do not believe that anyone wins an argument. One person may lose less, but they still lose. If our goal is to build a more inclusive society and to make it so that everyone feels like they belong, then our goal should be to build consensus, and not taking “winning an argument” in the literal sense.

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