Friday, 29 March 2013

7 Tips for Giving your Opinions with Confidence

Opinions. We all have them, whether they are carefully researched or something we've absorbed by 

Show 'em you're right! (from 12 Angry Men)
skimming the headlines of the Daily Mail. Sometimes it's better to keep them to yourself and a small number of other people (for example, if you think that Fifty Shades of Grey is the most well-written piece of literature of our time, or that, say, parents should be allowed to execute their children), but there are times when you need to state your opinions clearly and articulately. You might be asked at a meeting for your thoughts on the current project. You might find yourself in a heated debate, giving opinions on everything from corporal punishment to the reunion of Steps.

This doesn't seem to be a problem for some people, but many of us find that our brains and tongues fail us when we need them the most. If you've ever found yourself stumbling and tongue-tied when asked your opinion, feeling like an idiot and later kicking yourself with "I should have said THAT!" you'll know what I mean. Being embarrassed in public can make you feel like crap, and the less faith you have in your own opinions, the less secure you can feel speaking up in front of people.  

If you find yourself going quiet when matters of opinion are brought up, maybe that little voice in your head telling you that nobody wants to hear what you have to say, or that you’re not informed enough, then you’ll know what I mean. On the other hand, you might be the loud, obnoxious preacher, drunk on his own voice. When you feel passionately about something, it can be really frustrating when people don’t listen or agree with you. Do you ever wish that you could put your point across confidently, concisely and intelligently? I was going to call this “how to win any argument”, but I realised that this very notion of “winning” and “losing” goes counter to what I’m talking about. So, whether you’re exchanging ideas, debating, or flat-out arguing about feelings and opinions, here are some tips for boosting your own self-esteem (and convincing the other people that you are clever).

*This does NOT cover Internet arguments - see instead How to Cut Your Internet Argument Addiction!

1. Know when to say “I don’t know”

Nobody likes a know-it-all, especially when that know-it-all turns out to know very little. You know the ones - they listen to the news in the background, know a few facts, and can't help but speak up on every topic that comes up. These people seem to love the sound of their own voice, and trying to engage in a debate with them is mostly pointless, as they already made up their mind when they started talking. If you find yourself offering facts, advice and opinions a lot of the time, this might be you. 
I'd say that this need to argue comes from a place of uncertainty, even if the speaker seems very confident. By airing your thoughts, you are seeking confirmation from everyone around you. When they disagree, you feel attacked and push even harder, rather than letting it go. This is especially true when you find yourself arguing about something that you don't really know much about. Some topics might give you a strong gut reaction, but once you've let your anger out you might find that your argument doesn't have any further basis than your feelings. Being able to say "Actually, I don't know enough about that to really say anything" or asking questions about it will make you appear more intelligent than determinedly carrying on with a poorly-informed opinion. It's OK to admit that you're not an expert on some topics!

2. Don’t be afraid to agree

Often, with opinions, there is no objective right and wrong - just a difference in ideas. It can be hard to remember that when the other person's idea seems so ridiculous or stupid to you that you feel the need to "cure" them of it, but remember that you might seem just as ridiculous to them. Our opinions are shaped by our environments and experiences, and that person has simply had their view shaped in a different way to yours. Instead of waiting to prove them wrong and looking for flaws in their argument, try to listen openly and imagine that you were both talking about something that you agree on. It might seem impossible to pretend for a moment that you like Justin Bieber or that you think recycling is pointless/awesome, but when you stop listening through your mental filter of "waiting to disagree", you might find that some points actually make sense. 

It isn't the done thing, but saying "That's a good point", "I see what you mean" or even "Actually, you're right there" can really win the respect of people around you. It will also throw them off, because we usually expect debates to be about disagreeing. If the people around you are reasonable (and not just hell-bent on having an argument) then they might be pleasantly surprised by how open you are to hearing their side, too. You might even find that you feel swayed by their argument - and that's fine, too (see the next point). Or, if you don't agree, You can always bring your original idea back with something like "But have you considered...?" "The reason I think this, though, is.." "I just can't help but feel..."

3. See it as an exchange of ideas, not a battle

We often tend to see an exchange of opinions as a battle, which means that we use phrases like "winning" and "losing" the argument. Scientists can’t quite agree on why humans feel this compulsion to win arguments, but now some are suggesting that it is nothing more than an extended survival skill, another way of affirming our social status. When you “win” an argument, you feel more powerful. It could also be that we feel safer when those around us share our views.

 You might not think that you are trying to "convert" others to your way of thinking, but if you stop and take a deep breath, listen to what you're saying and look at what you're feeling, you might find that the only way that you will be satisfied with this argument is if the other person admits that you're right. How often does this really happen? It turns out that when we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs, we are even more likely to hold on to the original belief ! So, see it instead as a a friendly exchange of ideas, agree to disagree, and if the other person insists on trying to convert you, kindly tell them that you understand their point of view but that you just don't agree. 

4. Listen with logic, not your emotions

It can be easy to lose your temper during an argument or debate, if it is something close to your heart or a particularly emotive issue. Take a deep breath and try to focus on something other than your thoughts, such as your breathing or the feeling in a particular part of your body. Try to remain detached, as if you are not lost in the middle of your thoughts, but watching them from afar. The angrier or more upset you get, the more the other person will feel threatened – and then, they’ll unconsciously match your level of anger. 

Be sure to fully listen to what the other person is saying. If you go into an exchange of ideas expecting them to attack you and to be wrong, then you will miss what they are actually saying. When we feel emotional, we usually only hear the one part of an opposing view that makes us feel angry or upset, while ignoring the rest of what they’re saying. Try repeating the person’s words back to yourself in your head as they speak, rather than trying to reinterpret them into what you think they really meant. There’s nothing worse in an argument than the other person twisting your words to their logical extreme (e.g. You suggest that freedom of speech is a universal human right, and they sarcastically retort with “Oh, so you’re saying that we should all be allowed to go around throwing racial slurs at each other with no consequences!”).

Remember that it is not a battle, and that "losing" doesn't mean anything. You might even start to realise that the other person makes some good points. This doesn't mean that you are weak or that you have "lost" the argument - it just means that you are more informed than you were before. There is nothing wrong with saying "Well, I stand corrected!" or "Actually, I think you're right - I'll have to think about this more later", even laughing about it a little. It takes a bigger person to admit defeat humbly than to refuse to back down.

5. Change your body language

Sit up with a straight spine, your shoulders back and face the people you’re talking to. Keep eye contact when you argue, not too much – looking down and avoiding eye contact suggests that you are very unsure of yourself, while intense eye contact that never breaks will just freak people out, especially if your eyes are wide with anger. The confident pose that you adopt will make you feel more confident, and will convince others than you are sure of yourself.  Avoid overusing your hand gestures, too, as it can come across as a little threatening and intense (well, if you happen to be ranting while nearly whacking people’s drinks over, anyway). It also doesn’t hurt to lean forward and nod a little when people are giving their side; it’s definitely better than rolling your eyes or looking at your watch, as long as you don’t make it look like a parody of a psychiatrist.

6. Join a debating team or society

This might seem like a strange one to throw in there, but I was a member of the Manchester Debating Union. We watched a debate once a week and got to take part in one, too. The great thing about this was that we were given our topic and our side of the argument beforehand, meaning that we often had to argue the complete opposite of what we really believed. This really stretches you and helps you to see things from another perspective. On top of that, the training you get can be invaluable – debates are not won on anger, illogical extremes and unfounded statements, so they really teach you to learn your facts and practice your persuasive arguments. A lot of universities run debating societies, but you can often join them as a non-student.

7. Boost your all-around confidence

As I said before, needing to win an argument is often a sign that you’re not quite happy with yourself. If you are really secure in yourself, then it won’t matter whether other people agree with you or not, and you’ll see that most arguments are a waste of energy. 

When you feel more self-confident, in general, you will find it easy to put your opinion across in an assertive, effective way, but you’ll also lose the urge to be ‘right’ all the time. 

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