I absolutely love Thanksgiving. Still, I understand that if there's anything worse a big argument at Thanksgiving dinner, it's losing a big argument at Thanksgiving dinner.

With that in mind, I'm here to help. Before I became an author, I was a trial and appellate lawyer. (My dad is, too.) I was quite successful at it. I've stood up at the podium or counsel's table at least a few hundred times--trying cases, winning motions, arguing appeals in federal court--and I almost always won.

Short version: I know how to construct and execute a successful argument. Here's how it's done--by the numbers--so you can win your big Thanksgiving dinner argument.

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1. Choose your battles.

First off, I'm just going to say it. Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, so why do you want to ruin it ? That said, if you're certain that arguing is inevitable, be prepared first by thinking about your goals. Do you really want to crush your brother in law's spirit by destroying his opinion of his preferred political candidate? Or do you just want everyone to open their eyes to the possibility of your position before dessert?

2. Think of it as a story.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here are the real weapons. Your first job is to remember that a good argument usually contains a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has an arc, it has compelling characters, and it leaves people hanging on their seats to find out how it turns out. At the least, be sure you know how you're going to end your story before you begin it.

3. Know your facts.

Gone are the days when you could bluff your way through an argument; now every person at the dinner table has a handheld device that connects to the entire history of the world's collective knowledge. So know the facts you'll be drawing on, cold. For an added bonus, anticipate the facts your opponent will rely on, and know them as well. (See #7, below.)

4. Psych out the other side.

Don't just be prepared--employ drama and props to make the other side think there's no way he or she can win. When the discussion turns to immigration for example, you can smile and unfold a five-page, single-spaced matrix of facts and quotes that you've kept hidden below the table.

"Uncle John," you can say--always with a smile--"I thought you might want to talk about this..."

5. Frame the debate.

Almost every appellate argument begins with a declarative statement about "the theme of the case." For example, one lawyer might open by saying, "This case is about whether the state can prohibit two people from getting married," while his opponent might say, "No, this case has nothing to do with marriage, per se; it's about the highly complex intersection of federal and state laws."

This can be the most important part of any argument. It's really the question of what you're actually arguing about. Think about your frame ahead of time--it's the one moment when you can be reasonably sure people are still listening to you!

6. Employ emotion. 

Caveat: this does not mean "be emotional." It means that when you make points based on logic and reasoning, you present them in ways that buttress your argument with an emotional appeal.

For example, you don't simply say that you're in favor of a broad admission program for Syrian refugees; instead, talk about wanting to avoid a repeat of the M.V. Saint Louis in 1939. (Seriously, if you don't know that reference, please read the link, which takes you to the Wikipedia page about it.)

7. Anticipate the other side's arguments.

In preparing for big court cases, lawyers sometimes go through elaborate mock trial preparations, with colleagues playing the roles of opposing attorneys. You don't need to go that far of course, but if you anticipate that your argument will be with your 19-year-old sophomore niece, who absolutely loves Sen. Bernie Sanders, maybe read a couple of articles written by Sanders supporters before dinner. 

8. Ask yes or no questions.

It's said that a good lawyer never asks a question he doesn't know the answer to. A great lawyer, however, does something more--she guides the witness or her opponent to give the answers she needs to build her argument. That's usually easiest with yes or no questions. Example: "You'd agree that if not for the fear of terrorists, than we would absolutely want to help the Syrian refugees, right?" 

Either someone will answer that question with a "yes," or they'll probably look like a jerk. 

9. Do a little preparation.

Somehow I envision that a lot of people will be reading this article on their smartphones in the bathroom, about 10 minutes before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. (If that's case, check out my earlier article, 7 Things to Do When You Have to Give a Short Speech. )

Otherwise, while you don't have to overdo it--Thanksgiving dinner isn't the Supreme Court--a little preparation can go a long way. At the very least, go back to #5 on this list, and make sure you know how you want to frame your argument. 

10. Pull your punches and save face.

Once again, think about your goals. You're not trying for total annihilation here (at least I hope not!). You're also probably not going to convince your millennial "Bernie baby" niece that she should actually support Donald Trump. (Or vice-versa.)

So, build exit ramps into your argument where you can concede that the other side has made some interesting points. Find ways to help your opponent save face. In truth, if you really employ the contents of this article and other argument preparation resources, you'll be way ahead of your opponent and probably win hands down. But you want to be sure she can concede and walk away without feeling stupid.

Besides, there's dessert on the buffet and football in the other room. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

 

 

 

Published on: Nov 20, 2015