How To Keep The Upper Hand In An Argumentative Essay

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When you barter on the price for something you're interested in buying or discuss the terms and conditions of a contract, you are entering into a conversation in which there is a very clear winner and loser. This isn't always the case however and most of the times when we talk there is no obvious 'goal' to the conversation. However, while the winner and loser might not seem obvious, that doesn't mean that they aren't there. In fact, any conversation you have puts you in the position of either the winner or loser and there will always be one party who comes across as more 'dominant' and who takes a more assertive and influential role.

While it's no big deal most of the time, if you are consistently the subordinate party in your interactions, it will ultimately mean that less goes your way and that you make less of an impression on the people you talk to. More to the point, when you are having an argument or trying to negotiate, you'll be less prepared to swing the tide in your favour and get what you want. Here then, we will look at some simple strategies you can use to make sure that the ball is in your court more often than not when you're having a conversation.


Silence is an incredibly powerful tool and one that should never be underestimated. The problem is that most of us feel awkward in a silence and are thus compelled by the urge to fill it. Try it, next time you have a conversation with someone, leave a purposeful period of silence and watch how they grasp at things to talk about and start blabbing information (even more effective if you also stare at them during this time).

While this is a fun tool for making your friends squirm, it also puts you more in charge because suddenly you're not the one making so much effort to drive the conversation forward. By taking a more detached role, it becomes their job to impress. At the same time, this can also be a highly powerful weapon in a negotiation or even when trying to get someone to give you more information. The reason being that when people fill that silence, they will tend to try and fill it with things they think you want to hear.


Disagreeing, or even just looking 'unimpressed', is also a powerful tool you can use to put yourself in charge of the situation. Most of us are so eager to be liked that we'll agree with things and pretend to know things left right and centre. Even when we disagree, we often do it apologetically by saying 'Yeah of course, the only exception being... '.

If you want to gain control of the conversation then, take someone out of their stride by flat out disagreeing with them. When they tell you that 'Cannabis should be legal', don't try to sound cool by agreeing with them if you don't do the same. You might think that you'll win respect by agreeing, but actually it takes a lot more guts to call them on it and say 'I think you're wrong actually, and you're doing more damage to yourself than you realise'. Then enjoy watching how much it takes them out of their stride.


If you invite someone to do something you'll find it's oddly compelling and that they'll tend to comply. Don't tell people what to do or think, because their natural reaction will be to rebel. Instead, invite them in such a way that they know they can say no but feel obligated to follow. 'I invite you to think about just what an impact that will have on you', or 'If you have time, take a look through these documents for a moment'. And of course because you're telling the other person what to do, and they are following your directions, that puts you very much 'in charge' of the situation.


Another way to gain control of the situation is to put the other person into a more agreeable state of mind. You can do this for instance by getting them to verbally agree with you and confirm what you're thinking. For instance ask them 'do you understand?'. When they say 'yes', they're basically signing a verbal contract. Likewise you can say to them 'repeat after me' � though only if you're already in a very dominant position (otherwise you'll just come off as a douche).


Another way to tell who the dominant party in a conversation is is to look for who gets the last touch. Touching sends a strong signal that you are the dominant party and generally body language experts agree that the last touch is the most important. If you want to put a tick in the 'win column' after a communication, pat the other person on the back as they go to leave.

Taking the Moral High Ground With Rhetorical Questions

When someone is being aggressive and making a statement in an argument that isn't entirely justified, a quick way to knock the wind out of them is often to simply get them to justify what they're saying or to question their morality.

Calling up to complain about a bill? Then ask the person you speak with: I don't think this is very fair � do you? If someone is trying to push you around at work then tell them � 'There's no need to kick and screem, why don't you settle this like an adult?'. Suddenly they'll feel about an inch tall...

Care Less

In haggling and negotiations, the person who wins will often be the person who is happy to walk away from the deal. This way you come from a position of power, so make sure that you invest yourself less in any conversation you have. Be the person who is more able to walk away and let the relationship get damaged. One way to do this is to come up with a contingency plan: if your discussion doesn't go the way you hope it will, then how will you get by without them so that it doesn't actually matter?


Charisma seems like a magical and unquantifiable trait that's hard to define, but in fact it's very simple to measure what charisma is. Simply, charisma is what happens when you believe passionately in what you're saying. When you can do this, you will find that your body language reflects what you're saying, that your voice takes on a stronger tone and that you manage to bring people in and get them behind you as you talk. Make sure that you really believe what you're saying and speak from the heart and no one will be able to stand in your way.


All this is very good and well, but being purposefully awkward and trying not to care so much won't come naturally to begin with meaning that you'll have to learn it over time. If you want to get better at conversation then and 'win' more often than you lose, spend some time practicing and trying out the techniques outlined above. Next time you need to call your energy provider to query a gas bill, or next time your food isn't well cooked in a restaurant, practice being more dominant in the conversation and see how it goes. Over time it will start to come naturally.

Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics. He lives in London, England with his girlfriend and in his spare time he enjoys climbing, travelling, playing games, reading comics and eating sandwiches. Circle Adam on Google+! 

View all articles by Adam Sinicki

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As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.

Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.

“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”

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Poke holes

The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.

“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”

But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.

“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?

“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”

Critique your own arguments

Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.

“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”

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Fine, use Wikipedia then

The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.

“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”

Focus your reading

Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.

Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.

You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.

“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”

There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.

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Look beyond the reading list

“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”

And finally, the introduction

The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.

“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”

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