How to Win Arguments on Forums

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 13 September 2012 |

I suppose I look quite pompous publishing an article explaining how to win arguments on forums and message boards. However, I’m not really claiming to be God’s gift to Internet debating. Rather, I’d like to outline some of the common traps into which forum users (including me) can fall during heated forum discourse, and to add in some of the principles I’ve found useful in making a better argument, with less hassle.

THE BASE RULES…

The Base Rules concern traps into which it’s very easy to fall in the heat of an argument. These rules concern things which can prove overwhelmingly tempting, but which will always put you at a disadvantage…

Base Rule 1: do not, under any circumstances, call people idiots, retards, or any other names, or question their mental stability, or generally be insulting or abusive towards anyone you’re debating with. The first reason you shouldn’t do this is that it winds people up, typically results in a slanging match, and can, if it escalates, even get you suspended or banned. The second reason is that it doesn’t reflect at all well on you. The third reason is that many people associate name-calling with the loss of a debate. You couldn’t win by proving that you’re right, so you’ve resorted to personal insults. You may well encounter idiots, arrogant tossers or whatever on forums (in fact it’s almost inevitable), but the thing is, other people can see they’re idiots or arrogant tossers without you pointing out the fact. Stick to the subject of the debate, and don’t stray onto personal assessments of other members, however difficult that may be.

Base Rule 2: don’t allude to incorrect spelling or grammar in the posts of those you’re debating with. It comes across as petty and pedantic, and if you yourself have got as much as one apostrophe out of place in any recent post, you can be sure that someone will take great delight in pointing it out to you (and everyone else) in response. That’ll make you look like a hypocritical tit, and you really won’t have much credibility remaining with which to fight your argument.

Base Rule 3: don’t ever show evidence of being angry. This might include expressing yourself in an aggressive or vengeful tone, and perhaps swearing at people, whilst using high numbers of exclamation marks and/or posting in capital letters or bold print. If you find yourself writing a post in this manner, stop, give yourself a few hours to calm down, and then go back and write something focused and uncharged. When people see anger in a post, the conclusion they’ll reach is that you’re just an angry person, and normally, that will completely overshadow any valid point you’re trying to make. Anger also highlights a vulnerability which can be exploited by your opposition. Once they realise it’s fairly easy to get you to lose it, they may just keep provoking you – possibly with the intention of getting you banned.

GOOD PRACTICES…

I want to stress as regards the following, that the aim is to perform well in an important forum debate, so the practices I’ve listed are different from those you might use whilst just having a light-hearted chat. Some of the ‘precautions’ may seem a little over the top, but I’ve found that they do make a difference, and they’ve worked for me…

Give yourself some thinking time before replying. One of the greatest advantages of debating online is that you don’t have to reply immediately. No one knows where you are, or whether you’ve yet read what they’ve posted, so they can’t assume you’re slow or stupid if you don’t reply straight away. Forcing yourself to take time before responding not only allows you to consider a wider range of options – it also enables you to approach your reply in a calm manner, so you’re less prone to making emotionally-driven remarks you wish later you hadn’t made. But remember, there’s also a huge disadvantage to debating on a forum: everything you do say can be preserved forever. That’s why you need to take the time to get it right.

If your post is only going to be a sentence or two long, think it through carefully in line with the above principle. But if you’re going to make a longer post, type it out on your own computer first and save it to a text file. This has two advantages: 1) You won’t lose your reply if your browser crashes as you’re posting, and 2) You can close your saved file, go and do something else for ten minutes, then re-open the file and read it through with a clear head. Coming back to your reply and reading it fresh before taking it to the forum allows you to spot errors more easily, and affords you a little more objectivity to question what you’ve written, as follows…

Question yourself – be your own critic. Bearing in mind the inevitability that someone will disagree with you, it’s important to try to budget for the way(s) in which people will disagree when you write your post. Put yourself in the shoes of your opposition and ask yourself how you’d respond, if you were them, to the post you’re about to make. This is really effective, and the more you can look at your comments from the other side of the argument, the more you’ll avoid giving your opponents easy ways to come back at you. I almost always amend what I’m going to post when I consider the ways in which others will disagree with it.

Unless you have absolute concrete facts with documented proof you can post, cite as a source or link to, always try to use questions rather than statements. This makes you far less vulnerable to attack, and places the onus on other parties to provide the evidence. For example, rather than saying: “Your argument has no foundation.”, you could instead say: “What foundation does your argument have?” It’s only a simple change, but it puts you in a completely different, and much more comfortable position. A statement potentially puts you under pressure (because you’ll almost inevitably have to back that statement up), whereas a question puts your opponent under pressure. If the question never gets answered, you’ve pretty much won the debate, and if it does get answered, you’ve got more information on which to base any further posts. Turning assertions into questions therefore makes it very hard for you to lose.

Don’t try to defend the indefensible, or argue against any obvious merits. Be prepared to admit when you don’t like, condone or agree with a facet of something you’re arguing in favour of. And be prepared to admit that there are merits in something you’re arguing against. A lot of people on forums try to argue that something is either the best thing ever, or the worst thing ever. It almost certainly won’t be either, and you’ll have much more credibility (not to mention a much easier time) if you can acknowledge both the good and the bad points. If you try to paint something pure black or pure white, you’ll just look biased, and you could quickly fall victim to ridicule.

Know when to ignore someone’s post(s). You don’t have to reply to every post which contradicts yours. Some posts will be so obviously stupid and illogical that people can easily see they make no sense without you dignifying them with a response. Others will be overly aggressive. Others will perhaps be sarcastic and intended to provoke you. Replying to posts of the above types is highly likely to be more trouble than it’s worth. You can’t win a debate against people who have no sense or are just trying to troll you. It’s like a politician trying to have a debate with Ali G. Ali G would be the one talking rubbish, but it would always be the politician who’d end up looking like an idiot.

Avoid trying to justify your stance to anyone who doesn’t put forward a stance of their own. If someone simply tells you you’re wrong, never try to prove you’re right or explain your own position. Just ask them to put forward their own stance or solution.

Take care with your quotes. Normally, when you reply on forums, you’ll be quoting someone’s else’s post within yours. If they’ve made a long post, don’t quote the whole thing. That will dilute the point you’re trying to make. Instead, edit the quote down to the line or lines you directly want to pick up on. Also, be aware that quoting someone makes your post personal to them. If you do quote someone, approach your reply with a friendly tone, or, if they've been unfriendly towards you, perhaps a neutral tone. Try not to use an aggressive or sarcastic tone, as it’s likely to prove inflammatory. You win by being right – not by being insulting.

And finally, this is not a matter of life or death! It's a forum - a leisure activity. As long as you're true to what you believe, and you express yourself with dignity, then you've made a valid, worthwhile contribution. Some people clearly do place what happens on a forum at the epicentre of their world, but if there's anything you can do to avoid a state of affairs like that, do try to avoid it. Posting on forums should be fun - not something which is making you angry or emotionally stressed. In short, if people are telling you to "get a life", you probably do need to follow their advice.

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