Punching people in the face with facts doesn’t work

The difference between debating with someone and fact punching is listening to their opinion.


Zachary Walston

3 years ago | 4 min read

If only people understood your brilliance and simply accepted your insights. If they would just listen to your undeniable wisdom and recognized that all the information you spout is credible and true. How can they not see my point?

Where are they even getting their information from? Have these thoughts, or perhaps milder versions of them, ever crossed your mind? Well, while they are running in your head during a “debate,” the other guy is thinking the exact same thing.

Ignoring the other person is not debating

Yes, a debate is a formal argument where you express your opinion. The difference between debating with someone and fact punching is listening to their opinion.

Listen to the facts they bring to the conversation, allow them to add to the shared pool of information, and then modify your response. If we spend the whole time thinking about what we are going to say next, we can’t listen and learn from the other person.

The confirmation bias is a powerful and difficult cognitive trap to manage. We love to confirm our current beliefs and hate being wrong. So, our brain derives a simple solution. Don’t be wrong. How do I ensure I am never wrong? I simply point out all the flaws in your logic, no matter how big of a stretch it may be, and I relentlessly back up my views no matter the source of strength of the evidence.

This is where fact punching really takes over. Instead of listening and learning the perspective of the other person, we convince ourselves from the beginning we are right, and the other person is ignorant. If we simply provide the real facts, they will see the light. It doesn’t work that way. If we approach a “conversation” with the purpose of winning, nothing positive will be accomplished.

Who doesn’t love winning? Table that goal during debates.
Who doesn’t love winning? Table that goal during debates.

It is not all about winning

I will be the first to express my disdain for playing sports without keeping score. If two and three years old are playing, fine, I get it. Toddlers barely have developed front half of their brain.

They should focus solely on the joys of playing. Once they reach an age where the concept of winning and losing is established, all bets are off (but please do not even think about ordering participation trophies). Debating is not the same as sports.

Sure, formal debates have a designated winner and loser, but that is known going in. Also, as it is a competition, they have to argue an assigned side, whether they believe it or not. That is the true mark of someone who can debate well.

Charlie Munger, a longtime business partner of Warren Buffet, said “I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don't know the other side's argument better than they do.” Unless you did your homework, this means you have to listen to gain understanding and perspective. Real listening with genuine curiosity. Not waiting to pounce on an opportunity to throw a couple for fact jabs and an occasional haymaker.

A new issue may arise when you start listening though. You may realize that your argument has significant holes in it. You may not have understood all the perspectives. You have a choice to make. Embrace the new information and shift your opinion or use the laziest form of argument available.

You are not entitled to your opinion

Got your attention, didn’t I? Using the line “I am entitled to my opinion” is perhaps the laziest argument available. It is a cop-out. It is also wrong. If you do not have credible facts to back up that opinion, then your opinion is useless and carries no weight. If I state I am the best baseball player in the world, that “opinion” is simply false.

If I state anyone can fly if I flap my arms hard enough, that is clearly ridiculous and untrue. Sure, these are extreme examples, but they are used to indicate a flaw in the premise of the statement.

If you going to debate someone, come armed with credible facts, but also be prepared to listen to theirs. We cannot possibly know all the given information and perspectives on a given topic. Stand firm in your beliefs but be ready to abandon them if a valid argument is presented to you.

This is known as “strong beliefs, weakly held.” Having doubt does not mean you have weak convictions, but instead that you are constantly open to new evidence and make decisions based on a strong foundation.

If you have no intention in listening to the other person, but simply want to show them why they are wrong, save the time and effort. Don’t do it. Do you enjoy having facts thrown at you? Trust me, the fact thrower always believes they are in the right, you are not unique. Unless someone engages and is genuinely curious, nothing productive or beneficial will be accomplished.

So, nothing ever productive or beneficial will be accomplished

Nope, we can certainly have productive and beneficial conversations. The debate has a place. But it is true when emotions run high and someone is simply looking for a sounding board (which is happening a lot right now with COVID-19), opinions will not alter. There are many facts being thrown around social media today and few opinions are changing.

We don’t like being attacked. Shaming is not an effective strategy and often results in people doubling down on their beliefs. Instead, we need to engage in conversation.

Listen to people with opposing viewpoints. Try to understand their perspective. Ask for the evidence, but not in an accusatory way. You must then be prepared to back up your own facts with quality evidence as well. Our confirmation bias can be a pain in the ass to control, but if it runs rampant, we will never progress in our understanding or way of thinking.

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Created by

Zachary Walston

I am a Certified Specialist in Orthopedic Physical Therapy and the National Director of Quality and Research at PT Solutions Physical Therapy. My mission is to improve knowledge translation from research to clinicians and patients and reduce medical and health misinformation.







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