Heather Hansen

Want to Win an Argument? Try This.

“Everyone says I should have been a lawyer. I LOVE to argue.”

Often, when I tell people I’m a trial attorney, this is their response. They tell me that their families always told them they needed to take their stubborn debate skills and use them to make some money as a trial attorney. And those people might make fabulous trial attorneys. We do have to advocate for our clients’ positions, and many times that does mean arguing. However, much of that argument happens on the phone, in the hallway, and when the jury is not in the room. It doesn’t happen in the actual trial, because ultimately your goal as a trial attorney is not to win an argument. Your goal is to win the trial. If a lawyer wants to win a trial, she needs to focus less on arguing and more on honing her ability to ask questions. Lawyers win trials with questions, not argument.

In any given trial, the amount of time we actually spend arguing is a small fraction of the case. Openings are meant to be an outline of the case, and any argument during opening statement is improper because the jury hasn’t yet heard any evidence. After openings, the only thing the jury should really be hearing from you is questions. We question each witness, and that question exercise is rightly called an examination. We question our own witnesses with direct examination, we question adverse witnesses with cross examination. Trial lawyers use questions to show the jury their perspective, provide them with the evidence, and explore the weaknesses of the other side. It is through questions that we get to the heart of the matter. 

That is true in our own lives, outside the courtrooms, as well.  So many times we want to win an argument, so we fight harder, louder, and sometimes dirtier. We raise our voices, in the mistaken belief that the louder argument is the better argument, and that the better argument will win. Maybe in our personal arguments, and our personal trials, we should try less argument and more questions. Questions can help us to see another’s perspective. Questions can provide us with more evidence to aid our final decisions. Questions can help us see another’s vulnerability. At trial that vulnerability might be the place where you go in for the kill. But in real life, it may be the place where you can find common ground. Because here is the thing about vulnerabilities, in trial and in life–we all have them.

So the next time you’re in an argument, fighting with all of your fury and might, try this. Ask a question. You might find the answer is the key to a win. 

Heather Hansen

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