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Category: Conflict Resolution

How To End An Argument With Anyone

How To End An Argument With Anyone

For decades psychologists have been looking for a reliable way for two people to overcome conflict with each other.  And unfortunately most of what they’ve tried just doesn’t work.

However, one strategy, that takes only seconds to apply, can allow any one person in an argument to become more objective – allowing them to create a level of understanding that can overcome a conflict.

Here’s how it was discovered.

An experiment was done with 168 college students from Carnegie Mellon, University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania.

Students were to examine a court case involving an injured motorcyclist that is suing the driver of a car that hit him.  All students were assigned to play the plaintiff (the motorcyclist) or the defendant (the driver of the car).

Students were told which role they would take, then they were asked to make a judgment as to how much (or little) money should be awarded to the motorcyclist and to negotiate a fair settlement.

Students would be given real money if they could successfully conclude negotiations and would be penalized financially if they could not come to an agreement in 30 minutes.

Those who were to argue for the motorcyclists thought a fair settlement was about $17, 709 higher than those who argued for the driver.  And only 72% of the pairs of students were able to come to an agreed settlement.

But what does this prove?  Not much until you consider the second group of students who were told their roles only after they considered the information.

This group, researchers believed would be more objective about the information.  And they were.  A full 94% of these students were able to bring their negotiations to a successful conclusion.

Researchers concluded based on questionnaires that participants filled out that knowing their roles in advance made students see the information through the lens of self-serving bias.

And it’s this self-serving bias – which has people view information in ways that enhance their own position – that makes it so hard to end an argument or successfully conclude a negotiation.

So how can we become more objective so we can overcome a conflict?  It’s impossible for us to go back in time and look at the information objectively before we needed it.  So there must be some other strategy that can allow us to gain perspective.

Fortunately further research by the same people gives us some clues as to what does not work as well as what does.

They tested three different strategies to get the students to be more objective in their negotiations.

First they tried, having participants read a paragraph about self-serving bias after learning their roles and reading the case but before they decided what a fair settlement would be and engaged in negotiations.

No dice.  These participants were no more fair than others.

However, when asked to predict what the other person would view as a fair settlement, they gave more accurate assessments.  So they were able to see how the other person would be influenced by a self-serving bias but thought it didn’t apply to themselves.

Second, they tried having the subjects argue the other person’s case in writing.  This strategy also failed to improve how many cases were “settled.”

Finally, researchers tried having participants read about the self-serving bias and were told that it is caused by failing to see weaknesses in their own case.

Students who received this information had a settlement rate of 96%.  A big improvement from the 70% achieved by students that didn’t get that information.  In fact, this is the same success rate achieved by participants were told their roles after they read the information on the case.

So how do you end an argument that’s reached an impasse?

Find a weakness in your own position.  Just finding one weakness is all it takes for any sense of stubbornness or righteousness to soften.  It makes you more objective and being more objective may help you better influence the other party as well.

Reference to study described above:

Babcock, L., and Loewenstein, G. (1997). “Explaining bargaining impasse: the role of self-serving biases.” Journal of Economic Perspectives. 11, 109-126.