Dealing with people who always try to prove you wrong in a conversation

Harry Weasley 08/21/2017. 17 answers, 5.863 views
awkward-situations difficult-people argument

Consider the following scenario:

You have an acquaintance, who would probably be really good at turncoat (the game in which one person has to rapidly switch sides again and again on a topic). Whenever you bring up any topic for conversation, their prime goal is to contradict you and prove you wrong, regardless of their opinion on the matter.

For example, consider the following two hypothetical conversations:

  • Case 1:

    You: Did you hear of Hyperloop, designed by Elon Musk? Sounds promising, don't you think?

    Them: Are you kidding me? That sort of technology has been proven to be infeasible by scientists at MIT!

  • Case 2:

    You: Have you heard of Hyperloop? Far-fetched, don't you think?

    Them: Far-fetched? For your information, Elon Musk has already started trials of the prototype!

You get the point.They always want to 'prove' you wrong, regardless of whether the 'facts' they quote are accurate or not. In the hypothetical conversations stated above, they could easily pick either side of the argument and go on to 'prove' they're right!

If their arguments are weak (consider case 1), you often debate with them and defeat them, but it gives little satisfaction as they just smirk. Plus, you're a pacifist and don't like arguing.

How would you deal with this irritating habit of your acquaintance?

5 Comments
36 aschultz 07/28/2017
@Pete no it doesn't! Not even close! (Sorry, I had to.)
4 geokavel 07/29/2017
btw, you call this kind of person a "contrarian" (but this isn't English StackExchange). Waiting for someone to contradict me...
3 Abhigyan Chattopadhyay 07/29/2017
@geokavel No! It doesn't need to be in English StackExchange! It fits right into this one ツ
4 Mazura 07/29/2017
Has this question been asked here in reverse? How do you deal with the irritating habit of your acquaintance pontificating at you? "That Hyperloop designed by Elon Musk sounds promising." WTF am I supposed to say to that? "That's nice." ? And why do they get pissed off when I say it's a stupid idea? Do they just want to hear themselves talk? Why do they get upset when I poke holes in their thing with logic and expect them to defend it?
1 Emilio Pisanty 07/30/2017
Is this y'all's first Hot Network Question? I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of you in the sidebar, with the same kinds of questions, and for the same kinds of reasons, as with The Workplace. Welcome to the world of sudden and unmanageable bursts of traffic!

17 Answers


NVZ 08/11/2017.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It's almost always a no-win situation when two people argue or debate over something (and especially when temper has reached critical levels).

What I suggest is to pretend to agree with them no matter what - but you don't have to actually believe their side. Calculate your risks, though. If this is a matter that will come back to you later, like, your stance on political issues, don't agree or disagree. Just casually shrug it off.

It's a strange advice, yes. But consider this.

You: Did you hear of Hyperloop, designed by Elon Musk? Sounds promising, don't you think?

Them: Are you kidding me? That sort of technology has been proven to be infeasible by scientists at MIT!

You: Oh, yeah? Interesting.

That's it. They'll go away. You'll be back to your business as usual.


Update: See David Mulder's answer nicely explain why some people behave this way.

5 comments
1 Blake Walsh 07/31/2017
This is good advice. I've seen people use this strategy of simply conceding points - it can thoroughly discombobulate a person who wants to argue. Also often the arguer really is right (from a certain point of view) so it's not dishonest to agree with their point.
1 LangeHaare 07/31/2017
I agree. I do this - and started doing it from the other side. As a teen I was very pedantic and would "correct" my friends at every opportunity if they said something that wasn't quite right in my eyes (not quite in the contrarian way mentioned in the question, but it came off that way with some people). I realised that being right is rarely important, but annoying everyone around me was going to be an issue, so I started just nodding along or saying "oh!" to stuff I thought was wrong, unless it was actually important at the moment.
1 Luaan 07/31/2017
@LangeHaare It's hard to tell the right amount. We've had plenty of very fun discussions based on correcting a misconception, but I've certainly also pushed it to the point of being annoying too often. With my friends, we've learned to simply say "Not really all that interested" when we go too far, and that's the end of the annoyance :) One important bit - it's not important to prove you're right, but it certainly is important to follow the truth; it's not the same thing. When people see you honestly concede once in a while, a lot of the annoyance disappears.
1 NVZ 08/10/2017
@henning Agreed. I don't feel like debating that at the moment, I'm afraid. ;)

Andrea Lazzarotto 08/11/2017.

Change the question

The strategy I am aware of, which usually also works very well with people you don't know much, or people you absolutely don't want to leave a bad impression with (because of dating, business, etc) is not to express your opinion first. Instead of:

You: Did you hear of Hyperloop, designed by Elon Musk? Sounds promising, don't you think?


You: Have you heard of Hyperloop? Far-fetched, don't you think?

Try:

You: Have you heard of Hyperloop? What is your opinion about it?

At this point, they cannot argue with you because you are asking them to tell you about the topic. You did not express any judgment on it so they don't know your POV.

But most people who like to argue, or like to feel considered, will gladly tell you what the "right" (in their mind) answer is.

Listen to it and wholeheartedly agree, then go on with something else.

1 comments
6 Harry Weasley 07/28/2017
That's helpful in most cases, @Andrea Lazzarotto ,but the person in my example goes out of their way to argue with the speaker, even for the most innocuous statements like 'Black is a popular car color.' Still, thanks! (+1)

David Mulder 08/11/2017.

As someone who is/was in the bad habit of doing this I would say this type of behavior can be triggered by presenting extremist positions. If you tell a person like me

The hyperloop is amazing

I will gladly point out the physical difficulties which make it practically impossible. At the same time when someone would tell me

The hyperloop is a useless hype

I would probably point out that even if the hyperloop doesn't ever get build, at least the research and money that gets thrown into it might very well end up useful in other areas. People like this feel the need to 'balance out' any extreme positions when they feel like the real answer is more nuanced.

Now to answer your question, I think the best way to approach these kinds of people is to ensure you keep nuanced positions. And whenever such a person takes the opposite position of you realize that their opinion isn't as extreme as what they present. People who enjoy debate (note that debate has nothing to do with arguing) will often realize that to properly answer or consider any issue there isn't a simple one-sided answer. So in a conversation with such people, it's valuable to realize that they aren't trying to antagonize you by opposing you, but instead, they sincerely would enjoy debating it.


Now, that doesn't change the fact that you might hate debating something. And the feeling of someone contradicting you, again and again, is something most humans sincerely hate. If it's a friend or anyone you have a better relationship with I would personally just recommend sitting down with them and telling them that you don't share their love for debating stuff and that it often leaves you feeling antagonized. Don't expect that to change their behavior, but it will allow you to drop a reaction like

Fair point... but like, do you agree at least a bit that it might be far fetched?


One last thing that I have to note is that there are also people who only purely want to 'win' any conversation they get into. Those are the people who will attack in response to a question like the above. Personally, I am not entirely sure how to handle those type of people best, although I would personally go with variations of

I doubt you're right, but who knows, maybe I am wrong.

That way you don't give them the satisfaction of winning, without antagonizing them too much.

5 comments
Harry Weasley 07/31/2017
Very nice first answer! (+1) I've got many nice answers for this question, but yours is one of the best, as you also look at the perspective of the person who contradicts! Thanks!
Patrick Trentin 07/31/2017
I like this answer especially because it's something I left out from mine to not create confusion. +1 :)
David Mulder 07/31/2017
@PatrickTrentin Didn't read through all the written answers before and I have to say you wrote a very good answer. The combination of both of our answers I think gives a very good explanation :D .
1 JMac 07/31/2017
Totally agree with this answer. I do this all the time against extreme positions. My goal is usually to help people see the middle ground a bit clearer. Sometimes to do that you start at the other extreme and work out the middle ground as you go.
David Mulder 08/11/2017
@NVZ Not talking about a specific hyperloop such as the Hyperloop One, but about the generic concept as a type of transportation (just like train). So it shouldn't get capitalized (look hyperloop up on wikipedia for example). Anyway, thanks for the other two fixes!

Patrick Trentin 08/11/2017.

I think that the most sensible advice is to simply ask their opinion in advance and agree with whatever they say.

Let's explain why this is the case.

A contrarian may or may not have very strong opinions on some subjects, but it is not necessarily the case such person will defend their true opinions along a conversation.

For these people, debating a topic is a simple and consolidated way of moving forward a conversation. Hence, which side they take is not truly important. It's like playing chess game: one moves pieces forward regardless of the chosen colour.

A contrarian is a person that is self-aware that no one owns the absolute truth: many subjects, can be easily opinionated and looked upon under different points of views, even when most people would think that they are not.

From a contrarian point of view having contradictory arguments in separate conversations (sometimes even in the same conversation) is by no means problematic, because they are absolutely not married into their vouched opinions. From their point of view what matters is the gymnastic exercise of seeing things from different points of views and making other people see things from a different perspective.

Since objective truth is unattainable due to the inherent limits of human capacity, the goal of a conversation becomes to understand the great variety of subjective truths that populate our world by trying to fit in other people's shoes. One may think making questions is a good way to achieve that goal, and perhaps it is if one is good at making the right questions. However, disagreeing is a simple and effective way to lure someone out of their nest and to gather an insight on their point of observation in the universe, because the primal instinct of any person is to defend themselves and their opinions.

This type of conversation is an instrument for reciprocal enrichment as long as it keeps cooking new information and a new point of view in the pot. As soon as it reaches an agreement, it becomes dead and pointless.

That's why agreeing with a contrarian is deeply irritating for them, and that will likely make them avoid talking with you very soon (and ruin your friendship, if any). A parrot-like conversation is the worst you can offer to them.

Alternatively, you might simply hint to them that you noticed this pattern in their behaviour. If they are aware of it, they'll surely admit doing it and from there you can lead to a conversation in which you agree to not have this type of conversation anymore. If they're not aware of being contrarians, then move along because you're simply dealing with irrational people.


EDIT: this answer by David Mulder is complementary to mine and I would like to advice it.

1 comments
1 Mazura 07/29/2017
simply dealing with irrational people - not the answer I was looking for, but it's the one I should've expected. +1

JimmyJames 07/28/2017.

If someone is truly doing this, it's pretty easy to walk them into contradicting themselves or taking an absurd position. Once they have, you can press them to defend it. If you do this, it may humiliate them so I guess it depends on whether you want or need to remain friendly with the person in question.

So decide whether you want to teach the person a lesson or not. If not you probably just want to sidestep the debate with an "oh really?" or "that's interesting".

1 comments
Harry Weasley 07/28/2017
A reasonable and useful answer, @JimmyJames , thanks! As the speaker wishes to avoid arguments, I guess the second course of action is suitable! Thanks (+1)!

Cort Ammon 08/11/2017.

As a devil's advocate, I'm often "Them" in your conversation, so I'll try to answer based on what would influence me, and leave it up to you to determine whether it's a general solution.

The trick to dealing with them is that their position typically involves expending a great deal of energy rapidly. If I want to challenge your claim that the Hyperloop is awesome, the first thing I need to do is to come at you with enough force to keep you off balance. Otherwise, we run the risk of the conversation becoming grey instead of black and white -- which is bad for such an attacking personality.

The most fundamental thing to understand about this approach is that it's all about making you lose, rather than trying to make them win. They're not trying to "win" the argument directly. They're trying to make you "lose" first, and then proclaim themselves the winner by default. That's the game. However, if you refuse to lose, or refuse to lose meaningfully, then they can never claim their win by default.

So the first trick you can leverage is to simply only engage with this person in simple boring single-round sparring on topics that you don't actually care about. Did you actually care about the Hyperloop? Then don't ask them. This solution is exemplified in several answers, including NVZ's.

The next trick is the one mentioned by Andrea. If you don't make any statements that can be construed as an opinion, they can't attack it. This may be boring, but it can be entertaining to some people. From time to time, when my Devil's Advocate hat is hung up, I'll have fun trying to refuse to be goaded into verbalizing an opinion. It's actually a pretty neat game, I think. The key here is that they can never make you lose, so eventually, they will become frustrated because it's the only way for them to win.

Beyond that, the question I'd ask is "why do you want to have this acquaintance in the first place?" What value do you get out of it? If they're only annoying, just stop hanging out with them. If there's a reason to hang out with them, reflect on that reason. Maybe you just have to work with them as a coworker. Use this to your benefit. Have a meeting you want derailed? Invite them, sit back, and watch the fireworks! Maybe you're feeling lethargic, with no energy to get up and fight. Go hang out with them. Let them put all the energy into the fight, leaving you with more than you started with.

There are more advanced approaches too. If you can keep a conversation moving, it's hard for them to lay into any one topic. By the time they plan their attack, you've moved on. I, myself, have trouble with this approach, but I've seen it used very successfully. Eventually, they lose track of what They should attack.

Having a discussion with them can actually improve your conversation skills greatly, though no credit can really be given to them. If you can avoid being skewered by them, then you're that much more invulnerable in a discussion where your partner isn't trying to make you lose. If only They understood this more, and held their punches in a way that made it easier to learn.

5 comments
2 apaul34208 07/29/2017
Arguing to "win" is an exercise in futility. Just don't. If you enjoy this sort of thing, you're probably not the sort of person who asked the question.
Cort Ammon 07/29/2017
@apaul34208 I never said that I was the kind of person who asked the question. In fact, I explicitly stated that I'm more like the person who the OP is having trouble with, and that I'd share what would derail someone like me.
apaul34208 07/29/2017
Still generally bad advice... Don't feed the trolls n' all that. People who genuinely enjoy the art of pointless argument will always be better at it than mere novices.
Cort Ammon 07/29/2017
@apaul34208 Where did I recommend winning? I can correct it.
Mazura 07/29/2017
SE has taught me the worth of my unsubstantiated opinion. Good luck goading one out of me at this point. I am on the search for fact not truth. How (asks the OP)? : "don't make any statements that can be construed as an opinion" [plus one thousand] AKA, learn how to SE.

Joshua 07/28/2017.

Dangle some tempting bait of something preposterous but actually true. A few round of that and they will most likely be disgusted at their success rates and drop it.

One of the ones I have used with success is "I have seen antimatter.", but you probably can't use that one.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

5 comments
Harry Weasley 07/28/2017
that's a great idea, @Joshua ! The antimatter thing would definitely work, as the person in question consider themselves to be geeks!(+1) How do you type that emoticon, though?
4 Joshua 07/28/2017
@HarryWeasley: Ctrl-C Ctrl-V
Harry Weasley 07/28/2017
That's succinct, @Joshua ! Thanks!
NVZ 07/29/2017
LOL. I called dibs on the emoticon. :P
Nicolas Miari 07/31/2017
@HarryWeasley The central character is one of the (many) possible Japanese characters to choose when you enter "tsu", but I guess there's no straightforward way to inout it without japanese keyboard support.

Duopixel 07/28/2017.

You know all that is to be learned from Elon Musk? Why are you discussing it? Because it's interesting? Great! "tell me all the downsides and I will come back with answers to your objections". Someone who is truly interested will do.

If you are not willing to invest the time, then be light-hearted about it. This person thinks of conversations as boxing matches, and you can play boxing with him, if you like to argue. Or not. Your Choice.

The secret of changing people is changing your reaction to them.


AllTheKingsHorses 07/28/2017.

Two options come to mind:

  • Don't discuss with them at all (what's there to gain?)
  • Agree with what they say and drop the topic until it gets boring for them. "Elon Musk started a prototype? Interesting. Well, I guess then you're right. non-committal shrug"
2 comments
Mazura 07/29/2017
If I had written this question, it would have asked for something other than these two probable outcomes.
1 AllTheKingsHorses 07/29/2017
@Mazura If you had written this question, you should have pointed out what it is you're trying to achieve ;-) I don't see the point of arguing with somebody who's just trying to be contrary and/or keep the discussion going for the sake of discussing. If you want to "win" every debate with every fool you're clearly going to have a hard time in life.

Zeeshan Siddiqui 07/29/2017.

I agree with Jimmy James. People who disagree for the heck of it can be baited into their own ditch. They are so habitual to their behavior of contradicting others opinions, they can't and do not keep track of their own opinions. Whereas, someone who knows what they are talking about, has sound knowledge of the direction in which the conversation is heading.

  1. Lead them to contradict themselves. They will eventually be cautious when interacting with you.
  2. Before sharing your opinion, ask his/her opinion. Then dismiss it and continue talking from where you left off. Don't follow up to their opinion.
2 comments
Patrick Trentin 07/29/2017
"Before sharing your opinion, ask his/her opinion. Then dismiss it [...] Don't follow up to their opinion." I understand we might think differently on this, however this suggestion sounds rude to me. It seems to me acknowledging one's opinion, even when we think it has no basis, is the minimum requirement of being polite in a conversation.
Zeeshan Siddiqui 07/29/2017
I agree @PatrickTrentin. Acknowledging all types of opinions is a polite way of conversing, but when dealing with people who constantly feed off your energy and indirectly negate your opinions by contradicting unnecessarily, it is a matter of safeguarding self-respect.

Memetican 07/30/2017.

When someone is behaving in a way that I find annoying, I prefer to confront the behavior directly.

You: Did you hear of Hyperloop, designed by Elon Musk? Sounds promising, don't you think?

Them: Far-fetched? For your information, Elon Musk has already started trials of the prototype!

You: You know, I'm not sure whether to be impressed with your knowledge, or annoyed with your need to always be right. Either way, it makes having a conversation with you difficult.

If there are other people involved, they are probably attention-seeking, and will receive your comment confrontationally. That's fine if you are prepared for their bad reaction, and willing to lose their 'friendship'.

A more gentle way would be to take them aside and deliver the message personally to save them face.

You could also add this advice-

You appear quite intelligent, but I suspect you would build more productive relationships if you practice a more cooperative conversation style.

This puts you in the role of social-skills mentor and ally, rather than enemy, and may actually strengthen your relationship.


Stilez 07/30/2017.

I don't like game-playing of that kind. I'd say, call it. Don't ask questions if they will play games with it, because you want dialogue and they want points. You're a friend/colleague, not a target for someone else's game.

"Not interested, sorry".

If patient, wait a long while - weeks or months - and then tell them your perception of how they act, with a couple of examples of how you feel, and tell them you don't enjoy it, and you'd like them not to.


Sagar Upadhyay 08/11/2017.

When you are dealing with a person who always want to 'prove' you wrong, the strategy that you adopt depends on what you want to do.

  1. If you don't want a war - Don't even talk to them as far as possible.
  2. If you want a war but no major bloodshed - As it is mentioned in many answers, don't reveal your point of view first. Let them reveal their stance first and then make your move against it. However, the biggest limitation to this technique is that you can't always control this as most of our conversations are not planned to this extent. You may just say anything which can reveal your opinion and it may be used against you. Moreover, always confining your opinion in front of them can be emotionally exhausting.

    You: I should carry an umbrella today. I think it will rain today.

    Them: Nah! I have seen such clouds a million times. Only a fool will carry an umbrella in such a weather.

  3. If you want a win-win situation after full on war: Use their own arguments as a question rephrased against them. This is based on the premise that the more one speaks the easier it gets to defeat them. So, the only thing you have to do is to make them speak and speak and speak. The arsenals that you can use in this technique are labeling and strategic silence.Labeling- Rephrasing a part of their sentence as a question against them to make them reveal more and more. Use the subsequent answers to ask more questions and then either eventually maneuvering them towards your own viewpoint or just leaving the topic at a point where they don't have anything more to say. If you find their answer insufficient to ask anything, just be silent and look at them. This is the strategic silence and in most of the cases, they will start telling even more. Also, keep a few insignificant points at your side to avoid suspicion.

You: Did you hear of Hyperloop, designed by Elon Musk? Sounds promising, don't you think?

Them: Are you kidding me? That sort of technology has been proven to be infeasible by scientists at MIT!

You: Proven to be infeasible?

Them: Yes, I heard it from one of my friend in college.

You: (Silent looking)

Them: He had read about it in the newspaper a few days ago.

You: In the newspaper? I didn't find it?

Them: Yes it was there. He was very sure about it. Also, he told me that tests in MIT are still going on.

You: Tests are still going on? So isn't their finding final?

Them: No it is final but they want to reveal even more information about it.

You: Information?

I guess now you get it where it is going.Such a maneuvering will give them the impression that the result of this conversation is their own view point and so it needs not be contradicted.


aschultz 07/28/2017.

First, if you've got quick access to technology, and the person really blows you off, you can say something like "Wow, that's really interesting. That's something I'd like to google right away! Asking you questions about it might be wasting your time. I'm obviously missing a lot."

There's also always the bland "You've given me a lot to think about."

For me it's maybe not so much about what I say but more about not feeling helpless going into a conversation. Having a safety valve or two, or more, depending on the situation, means I won't dread speaking to certain people.

I'm also reminded of two quotes from movies. They help lower my blood pressure. And if I think of them during a conversation, I know to make exit plans. You may have your own favorite movie, but I like these, because they're not specifically about arguing.

A famous quote from War Games is where the computer says "The only way to win is not to play" about nuclear war. This applies to arguments, too.

The other is from the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers.

"Suppose nobody in the house took the painting."

"Go to the house next door."

"Suppose there isn't any house next door."

"Well, then. Of course we gotta build one."

In other words, even when there's no real reason to argue, let's argue! I find it's good to have a jokey perspective on the matter even if the joke isn't very good, or even if you can't share it with anyone.

This helps us accept the hard truth that some people argue for the sake of arguing. We'd like to think people are better than that. But they can have a bad day, and that's worth taking into account, too. So it's have several ways not to raise tensions that don't feel like you're jollying the other person along.


Although multiple answers have mentioned this, I'd like to repeat that all arguments are a no-win situation for all the participants. The simple reason is that an argument is generally subjective in nature, with few absolute cases possible. Also, the person arguing can conjure up as many "facts" as he wants to just to prove you're wrong (although Google is always there for youツ).

Whenever there is an argument, there's always some people on both sides. The reason is that humans like to try and see both sides of the coin. For some, arguing just for the sake of it is enough, whereas there are some whose arguments have real points hidden in them.

Take your own example:

Are you kidding me? That sort of technology has been proven to be infeasible by scientists at MIT!

This argument has no real strength behind it, as your friend has no reasons backing his argument.

In all such cases, I have observed that the best way to react is to say:

Really now? I didn't know that! Go ahead and tell me about it.

This is because the person arguing is going to keep making up some excuse or the other to prove himself right in this case. The next thing you could do here is Google it up instantly (provided you have a proper internet connection), and see for yourself. If the argument your friend has made was false, then you can tell him about it, and he will shut up soon enough.

Now, there still exists the case where your friend has truly made a point. In this case, your best bet is to agree with him/her, saying something along the lines of:

Oh! I didn't know that...

As you may have noticed, in both the cases, I say that I didn't know what the friend was saying. This is because the friend in concern here thinks he knows it all. Know-it-alls are very, very stubborn and will never accept that they are wrong and you are right. Mirroring people like this helps to make them feel like they have won. See this answer. Agreeing blindly also leaves them blank, but then they don't exactly feel like they've won either, so this method is good if you want them to leave you alone without you losing the argument. Andrea's answer is also perfect in this case.

Thus, the best way to deal with these people who compulsively argue is to just let them win, however you like it, even if they're saying that Angelina Jolie is their father. (ツ)

1 comments
1 Mazura 07/29/2017
What if they think that everything on the internet is BS?

usernumber 08/02/2017.

I'm sometimes the "them" in your question, but I do it for a reason other than arguing for the sake of arguing. If they're like me, this could probably work on them.

When I hear a statement like the ones in the question, that seems a lot like:

I have read the headline of a news article and now wholeheartedly agree with it, without thinking it through or looking anything up.

I confront this, to try to stop you from being misinformed.

The easiest way to deal with someone like this is to show that you've given it some thought and/or researched the subject when telling them about it.

1 comments
1 henning 08/10/2017
OP's interlocutor is argumentative no matter what the facts are and regardless of how well either side is informed.

Jessica M 08/11/2017.

I have a relative who does this and it is excruciating. I don't want to just agree, because often I disagree vehemently. Also, I know that if I agreed, they'd flip to the other opinion or find a reason to claim that I hadn't thought of something. So, my strategy is to avoid comparing opinions and NEVER ask for agreement.

  • Instead of "Did you hear of Hyperloop, designed by Elon Musk? Sounds promising, don't you think?" say "I think Hyperloop, designed by Elon Musk, sounds promising." If they disagree, simply ask "what makes you say that?"
  • If you don't want to know their opinion, don't ask for it.
  • If you want to know their opinion without the debate ask, "What do you think of X?"

Related questions

Hot questions

Language

Popular Tags