How to win the person, not the argument

Earlier this year, we launched our new podcast entitled Let’s Talk Gratitude. Here is an excerpt from our first episode where Girma Bishaw chats to Clare Herriot about how gratitude can help us win the person, not the argument.


Q 1. Girma, what made you write this statement?


Girma: It’s the realisation that a healthy relationship is a foundation for a harmonious life, family, community, society, and it’s in a healthy relationship that communication works. In communication, our desire is to be listened to and understood. When the relationship is not healthy, no matter how superior or convincing your argument is, unless you aim to win the person, you will postpone the problem to surface another time, maybe, with a different topic or issue.


If you approach your argument to win the person, not just the argument, you will make the communication objective, not just subjective, and it will be focusing on the issue. You will arrive at a place of mutual understanding. Even at a time where your opinion is different. So, introducing an acknowledgement of the good in our conversation helps us achieve that.


 Q 2. How does showing gratitude benefit each person?


Girma: It benefits us by helping us overcome negative emotions that can harm our well-being, our relationship, and our communication. When negative emotions dominate us, we fail to articulate our ideas constructively. When you start your conversation with acknowledgement of the good, you will overcome any negative emotions in you, and it disarms the other person and invokes a change of attitude; even if the other person comes with anger or resentment, your approach can help that person to overcome that negative emotion and constructively engage with you. It helps you and the other person and may help both individuals focus on the subject matter.


 Q 3. Do you have an example of where that’s happened to you, where you responded with gratitude to a conflict situation?


Girma: A while ago, a friend of mine totally misunderstood me and spoke against me in a very hurtful manner in a public setting. I was angry and hurt, and obviously, the natural reaction was to respond in the same way to her. I have known her for quite some time and benefited greatly from her ministry over the years. So, I calmed myself and reflected on the good that she brought to my life and others, so when the leadership body that we both submitted to brought us together for a reconciliation, they were expecting a fierce argument. It was a hard time really resolving the issue because they could tell how what she said could be very hurtful. But I started by appreciating my friend for the good things she brought to my life and others and how privileged I was to know her and work with her.


The moment I said those things, the whole atmosphere changed. The tense and hostile environment totally changed, and the leadership team actually said, ‘We don’t need to be here. You guys could resolve this,’ and they just left the room. Eventually, I was able to explain myself, and she understood. She admitted her misunderstanding, regretted saying the things she said, and eventually publicly apologised for what she said. So, the situation was sorted, and we kept our relationship until today. It could have gone the other way if I responded negatively, and it could be confrontational, and even if I had won the argument, our relationship would have been over by that.


Q 4. Where would you suggest that we start, have you got any good advice for us?


Girma: Start with gratitude; the earlier, the better! We can encourage our children to embrace the attitude of gratitude and see its benefit, the benefit to themselves, the benefit to others. And I think as a family, we can use different opportunities.


For me, whenever our children come back from school or the playground being angry or sad, we are very quick to ask them what happened, ‘Are you okay, what happened?’ But when they are happy, we don’t ask them anything; we are happy that they’re happy. However, that’s actually a perfect opportunity for us to teach them gratitude because there is a cause for their happiness, there is a reason for their happiness, and it could be someone has done something for them, they had a good time with their friends.


Also, I think your children learn from what they see more than what they hear. Help them identify the source of that happiness and acknowledge that would be the best way of cultivating that eye to see the good and learn how to cultivate a gratitude attitude. We practice gratitude when we go out to restaurants, really recognising the good around us and appreciate that; it rubs off on them and they can pick that habit up from us. And even where there are difficulties, where they have done something wrong, to try to start our conversation from the good would be the best way to approach it because we are not trying to just correct, punish them, we want them to be corrected, and we don’t want them to do what they have done again. So, the gratitude approach will encourage them to see their problems, their faults, in a kind of new gracious environment.


Clare: I like the idea that it’s not something that necessarily happens overnight, but it’s something you have to practice; I love the phrase ‘to see the good’. Miroslav Volf said, ‘eyes to see the good for which we can be grateful,’ which is a beautiful expression. It’s so easy to be reactive in life, but this encourages us to be proactive and start to look. Since I’ve been involved in the Gratitude Initiative, my whole family has become more proactive at looking for the good, demonstrating appreciation and value for everything we do.


Interestingly, you mentioned setting a good example because young people look up to their parents and people in the media or parliament. Unfortunately, it can be too easy for MPs to put another colleague down, however, have you noticed when someone does show appreciation for a good job well done to another member of parliament, it can be very powerful?


Q 5. Why do we often focus on the negatives? How can we adopt a gratitude mindset?


Girma: The problem is our tendency, our natural tendency; our default position is to focus on the negatives. As the neurologists say, at best, only 30% of our thoughts are positive in a day, the rest 70% are negative. So, gratitude then helps us to be intentional in recognising the good. We need to be intentional in remembering the good and starting our conversation with the good. Otherwise, we will be acting in a natural tendency which is looking at the negative.


Language is not only words but also our imagination, thoughts, and what we think about other people. To see changes in our social function, as you mentioned, politicians or relationships, resulting in individual and social well-being, we need to see a change in our social imagination and how we see others. If that changes, then what we say about other people changes; our action towards them also changes.


Transformation starts by changing our language, changing our imagination about others. So, politicians could play a great role in this. Could you imagine if the opposition party started the conversation by highlighting the government’s good? We might think that makes the opposition party a weak party, but it doesn’t; it demonstrates the genuineness of that party because it’s not just a blind condemnation. They appreciate what the government is doing for the country’s good but also criticises and brings an alternative for the things that have not been done. That will then drop down to society as well, as we can’t act one way and expect society to act a different way.


Q 6. Girma, I understand you’re a Christian. Do you have any examples or biblical examples of where gratitude has been shown in the Bible, any characters that have resonated with you?


Girma: Yes. As we said in the beginning when we say gratitude we mean acknowledging the good.  This could mean that I start my conversation by appreciating your willingness to come and have a conversation with me. When we start with gratitude, it actually creates a space for other people to encounter their own faults. Let’s say somebody has harmed you, and you have found an opportunity to speak to that person. I think for us, Jesus Christ is an example of that.


His expectation was condemnation, accusation or confrontation, so when you approach them with acknowledging the good and really by appreciating something, that is kind of acknowledging the good that you both know, then the whole thing actually changes because psychology, as well as theology, demonstrates to us that when human beings are accused or condemned, we immediately get into a survival mode. 


The survival mode is either flight; you fly away or don’t want to avoid confrontation, or give lip service so that the issue won’t be resolved, or you’ll be confrontationally even, you become more defensive. The relationship is not going to be better, or the solution won’t come. So, my example from the Bible is Jesus and Zacchaeus.


Zacchaeus was notorious, a sinner, who was oppressing the poor, and he was aligning himself with oppressors, and the community had accused him of a very long time. They were condemning him, accusing him, saying all sorts of things about him, but he was comfortably living despite the accusation without changing the course of his actions. Still, one day, Jesus saw him when Zacchaeus went up on the tree to see Jesus.


Jesus saw him and said to Zacchaeus, come down immediately, and I must stay at your house today. So, he came down at once, and he was shocked that Jesus actually decided to come to his house and the people who saw that were murmuring that he has gone to be the guest of a sinner, how can he go to Zacchaeus’s house.


They were focusing on the wrong in the scene, but Jesus was focusing on something else. Jesus was focusing on the desire to change in Zacchaeus, the pain and readiness, the humanity; despite his sinfulness, he is a human being. He was also the son of Abraham, as Jesus said later on. So, Jesus was focusing on that, on the good, and without saying anything to Zacchaeus,


Zacchaeus started to confess and found a space to encounter his own sin. Grace grants people a space to encounter their own sin, even more than we can show them, more than we can persuade them; they can have that encounter that is more powerful because they can see their wrongs. After all, we have created that space for them.


Clare: That’s absolutely brilliant, and there a scripture in Romans that says, ‘it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance’ and Jesus’ kindness to Zacchaeus, not judging him on what he’s done, but loved seeing him as a person and his own right, actually gave him that space to recognise his wrongs and take action.


Q 7. Gratitude obviously is important, but where does it sit with other virtues? 


Girma: There was a philosopher called Cicero; he was a Roman, he said,

‘Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all of the other virtues.’


If you’re grateful, then you will be functioning from a place of contentment, a place of fulfilment, a place of humility, a place of acknowledging your own limitation, so kindness springs out of that, caring springs out of that, generosity springs out of that and all other virtues will come out of that. Where there is ingratitude, where gratitude is not there, then really what follows it would be a very negative, negative kind of virtues, you won’t be generous, because you always look out on your lack, what you don’t have, what you need to have and you’ll be self-centred.


Clare: It’s been wonderful chatting to you today on our first podcast and delving a little bit deeper into the statement, ‘How to win a person and not an argument,’ is really important and how it’s really valid, particularly in today’s society, so, please give us one final word.


Girma: I know it seems out of line from how we usually approach people and situations, but let’s try out a conversation to acknowledge the good. We’ll see the change it brings us in and in others and how it resolves the problem that we are trying to tackle. I encourage you to embrace gratitude and to practice and let us know your experience.


We will be delighted to join us as we explore how sharing gratitude can positively transform both individual and community relationships.  You can subscribe to Let’s Talk Gratitude on Spotify.