If you are passionate about anything, chances are you’ve found yourself wondering “how in the world could that person believe x about an issue?!”, where x is avoiding semicolons in javascript, using tabs instead of spaces, being pro-gun, anti-cupcake, etc.

I used to find some of those moments very stressful. I’d be sitting there with lots of “evidence” and “research” to support my position, fuming about some idiot who can’t use apostrophes correctly and is frickin’ ridiculous with his/her hyperbole and logical fallacies…and get nowhere.

I finally figured out a little exercise that helps me in those tense situations: I just consider that the other person probably sees me as just as insane as I see him/her. That other person is more or less like me (rational, thoughtful, educated, kind, etc.) but disagrees with me the same way I disagree with him/her. And that’s fine.

“But I’m right!” you say.

Maybe you are. So what? Go tweet about it with loud, emphatic language! What good is that going to do? It makes you look like an ass when you’re right, and an ass when you’re wrong. Save your energy and hope that your noncombativeness will be reciprocated. To quote Dale Carnegie (more from him in a minute), “You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.”

A baby step on the way to figuring all this out was more or less the development of a coping mechanism. I made a decision to not engage in fruitless debate. I noticed that many arguments I was having on Twitter and Facebook were fruitless…so I just stopped enabling myself to get all worked up over things 140 characters at a time.

Later, I had a realization when a friend help a position I found to be indefensible. As friends often do, we had an easy, dispassionate conversation. Neither of us won over the other person and that wasn’t the goal—we were just friends talking. That is when the real trick I described above sunk in: me and that other dude are similar.

Then this happened again when I was listening to a podcast I’d been listening to for a long time. My views usually line up well with the host’s (I listen for entertainment, not education). But then he passionately, and repeatedly started taking a position I am strongly opposed to. I literally said “Whoa, what?!” to myself the first time I heard it. Then I went though the whole exercise: this crazy smart, well informed guy has an insane position on this issue. Whoa! But that’s ok!

Now, suppose you actually want to change some hearts and minds on an issue. That’s really, really hard, and I’m not going to tackle that here. I can recommend these two books I recently finished, though: Switch and How To Win Friends and Influence People (aka HTWFAIP).

Both titles walk you through the basics of understanding problems, working with people, and affecting change. They use lots of anecdotes, guidelines, and tips.

If you’re not familiar with either, you might be surprised to hear that I found Switch to be more mechanical and duplicitous than HTWFAIP. It seems to focus more on the steps necessary to analyze situations and maneuver* *others into your line of thinking (or outright manipulate them). It also helpfully provides a framework for approaching and solving problems, and a vocabulary for talking about them. This has been very useful at work—we read it as a group and now refer to it and use its terms all the time.

HTWFAIP on the other hand sounds like it’d be all about subterfuge but is actually entirely genuine. It has a slightly different goal of getting people to like you and it encourages this almost exclusively by teaching you to be a nicer person. Seriously! It offers many tips and admits that they will be effective only if you are sincere.

Relating this back to the post, here’s another Dale Carnegie quote from HTWFAIP about arguments:

“I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument— and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes.”

Both are good, easy reads, and great for groups. I suggest reading FTWFAIP first, then Switch.