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Barack Obama's Argument Style

Use the Obama Method to Win Any Argument

Sometimes during an argument, you'll realize that the other person is not even listening to what you're saying. Their defenses are up so high that whatever you say to them is not registering — so what's the best way to get through to them? You might want to learn a thing or two from President Barack Obama, who deals with some of the toughest negotiations.

We caught a glimpse of Obama's negotiation strategy in this Vanity Fair profile written by Michael Lewis a few years ago. What Obama does is reminiscent of the Socratic questioning method, in which the person making the argument starts out by asking questions in order to avoid making the opposing party defensive. Lewis writes:

The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qad­da­fi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options. "The intelligence was very abstract," says one witness. "Obama started asking questions about it. 'What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?'" It didn't take long to get the picture: if they did nothing they'd be looking at a horrific scenario, with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. (Qaddafi himself had given a speech on February 22, saying he planned to "cleanse Libya, house by house.") The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. "He instantly went off the road map," recalls one eyewitness. "He asked, 'Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?'" After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, "I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room."

Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. "What was a little unusual," Obama admits, "is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made." The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians. His desire to hear the case raises the obvious question: Why didn't he just make it himself? "It's the Heisenberg principle," he says. "Me asking the question changes the answer. And it also protects my decision-­making." But it's more than that. His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.'s and basketball with people who treat him as just another player on the court; to stay home and read a book rather than go to a Washington cocktail party; and to seek out, in any crowd, not the beautiful people but the old people. The man has his stat­us needs, but they are unusual. And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established stat­us structures. After all, he became president.

From this anecdote, we learn that instead of immediately persuading people to do what he wants, Obama reaches out to other people to hear their views. This an especially effective strategy as an authoritative figure in a situation with a lot of egos and strong opinions. It shows that you're making the effort to listen to other people and hear all their arguments, which makes people more open to other suggestions. At the heart of it all, it's human nature to want to be heard and validated. By listening and asking questions instead of ordering people around, other people will see that you're making an effort to listen and you won't come off as being aggressive, which opens them up to consider other options. Hey, who knows — it will probably open up your mind too, and you may even change your stance on a position.

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