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So... As I'm sure many of you have noticed by now, I have a nasty habit of locking onto an issue and not letting it go.

I asked my brother about this, and he seemed to think I was just born this way.

As soon as you started talking you just pitbull-ed in on things.

Unfortunately, this is often a blessing and a curse. It's made me a fighter and that's helped me survive at points. It also helps me to fight for the things I believe in. And it helps me to openly challenge authority.

Unfortunately, there are obvious downsides... Some things aren't worth pursuing to such a degree, and it definitely alienates people.

I guess when it comes to a "would you rather be happy or would you rather be right?" I usually choose:

Right, 'cause I am, and I don't care if I have to argue with you about it all night!

My question is... How do I learn to pick my battles a little better? Should I learn to let things go? How do I figure out which things to let go?

(I'm aware that there are three question marks there, the second two are there to expand on the first. More explanation than actual questions.)

Ya... It just occurred to me that I've been doing the exact thing that I'm trying to learn to avoid, with this very question and the related meta post. This is probably a really good example of the way I tend to lock in on things when I think I'm right. I rarely do it when I don't have a leg to stand on, but often the cost outweighs the gains and I end up aggravating a lot of people about an issue that seems really important at the time, but in retrospect probably wasn't worth alienating all of those people. I still think I'm right, 'cause I am, but I've got to learn when to take a step back sometimes.

So... um... For all those that insisted on an example there it is... Sorry about that.

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    Is this a question about an interpersonal problem or a personal one? – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Sep 30 '17 at 7:47
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    This is a good question @apaul34208 and I never close-vote myself but I am sad to say that if a new user had asked this Q, 5 users would have jumped on it with all their weight by now, and closed it as too broad. Either this site is developing double standards (because the champion close-voters live where it's around noon at present) or the Americans are just now waking up to coffee on the East Coast. You can avoid this situation by specifying one interpersonal interaction that represents your broader case. – English Student Sep 30 '17 at 10:11
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    "(...) it looks like the question is clear and answerable without the, supposedly necessary, examples. So far the question is attracting the exact sort of answers I was looking for, so it would seem that it is also reasonably scoped." __ yet 5 users did vote to close @apaul34208; this is exactly why I feel that at least in certain cases our definition of 'too broad' might be a too narrow approach -- to be explicit I don't believe a generally pertinent question needs to focus on a specific IPS situation -- so we need more discussion on meta about the allowable breadth of questions on IPS! – English Student Oct 1 '17 at 6:03
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    Both of the main examples you list here are related to SE, which makes me feel like this question should be closed... but you also seem to imply that this issue is something you deal with generally. If that's true, I think you should remove the SE-specific content in favor of real-life examples that are fully explained. Even your SE-specific examples you sort of gloss over what happened, so this seems like you're asking for general advice. – Catija Oct 2 '17 at 23:21
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    You don't have any counterpoints. You want to use the site as you wish, questions as broad as you like and you have resisted giving examples from the first. You're literally making "giving examples" exactly what this question is about. Except in this case, you're neither happy or right. This site is not here to answer general questions. The very point of SE is to address specific problems people are actually facing and there is no one solution to this question as every occasion is likely to have different factors. – Catija Oct 2 '17 at 23:30
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+200

How do I learn to pick my battles a little better?

I was just like you, years ago. Spending time and wasting energy. And I learnt that there's only a huge waste on both sides when it comes to a Pyrrhic victory.

How can one identify a no-win situation?

  1. Know your [ opponent / naysayer ] and yourself. Strengths and weaknesses on both sides.
  2. Know the battle you have to fight.
  3. Know the ground you'll be fighting on.

When serving in the Army, I read Sun Tzu - Art of War (as if there could be any art in a war, but that's another story, and a philosophical battle I won't fight here...). Basically, you don't fight when you can't win. You wait until you can win the battle 1.

What I have done is: listen to the contradictory spirit. Let them talk, tell you what their strongest arguments are, and see if you can have real, strong, well documented, counter-arguments.

If yes, step into, otherwise, turn and walk away...

When doing that, I almost every time felt frustrated. Then, when the heat was down, I would think about what had happened. And realized I had done the right thing. Because the other person would have just kept their point of view, no matter what your arguments were.

Last, but not least, after stepping in the other person's shoes, I would just realize that they were right and I was wrong :) and had learnt something, that they just had widened my mind.

This is experienced-based and worked like a charm, even though it took years... It was worth listening, waiting and learning.


Should I learn to let things go? How do I figure out which things to let go?

I think the above answers these as well.


This has been credited to Sun Tzu: a young warrior and an old, experienced warrior come to a battle. The young one runs, and goes straight into the fight, and gets killed. The old one watches the fight, studies the foe's way of fighting, steps into the battle, fights, and kills the foe.

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    This resonates with the advice to argue in favor of your opponent's position, try to find everything right about it, before arguing against. Often, you'll just see that they are right in what they say. Same result achieved: you learn something, and thee was no battle. – anongoodnurse Sep 30 '17 at 13:19
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    The only counterpoint I can think of is that old warriors sometimes fall into analysis paralysis. As in they often become a little too conflict adverse and the battles that need to get fought get left to younger people or don't get fought at all. – apaul Sep 30 '17 at 16:15
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    @apaul34208 : breath deeply and restore your inner peace young padawan, you don't need to fight right now :)) but you're right, young people need to fight battle their elders can't anymore. My old man used to say: wish I was still 20 and know what I know now. I often heard (roughly): if only younger knew, and elders could. We all need the other, as someone is always stronger or smarter. – OldPadawan Sep 30 '17 at 16:23
  • +1 for your wise and philosophical advice @OldPadawan -- the point about 'pyrrhic victory' is especially appreciated, as are the clickable links which we aren't posting often enough even where they would be useful here! – English Student Oct 1 '17 at 6:11
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    @apaul34208 : This is probably a really good example of the way I tend to lock in on things when I think I'm right. Yes, maybe, as many of us sometimes, you are kind of stubborn, but hey, aren't we, all of us, once in a while, the fool looking at the finger when the wise man points out the moon? I have been, you have too, some readers here too... Isn't it also why we are here? :D – OldPadawan Oct 3 '17 at 7:25
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TL;DR -- Consider ROI of arguments and which arguments are actually unresolvable

A lot depends on what you expect to get out of these battles. (This is where examples would help) Are you trying to make people do things? Are you trying to make someone acknowledge that you are right? Are you trying to stop someone from making a mistake?

There are some issues where it is appropriate to take a scorched-earth stance. I doubt you'll find 'em on Stackxechange meta, though.

You might consider looking at the ROI (return on investment) of any given battle. Is the benefit you'll gain -- which you should define for yourself -- actually worth the cost in terms of time, aggravation, and enemies made?

You might also consider your tone and approach. Do you avoid ad-hominems? Look back at old arguments... do you win or lose based on building consensus or showing reasoned arguments, or does it devolve into some kind of battle-of-wills beatdown which settles nothing and just leaves people seething. Do you recognize that your opponent holds his position not because he's an idiot, but because there is likely a decent case to be made for it?

Lastly ... and this is important. There are a lot of arguments which cannot be won, because the people involved have different axioms about life. Axioms which are at root emotionally held. (Ex: I believe there is an innate value to human life vs I believe there is not) No amount of arguing is going to resolve an argument where the arguers are building their cases off of incompatible axioms. The thing to do in that case is to uncover the differing axioms, acknowledge that that is the root of the disagreement, and move on.

I understand your frustration ... I see things here on SE which annoy the [redacted] out of me, but it would be counter-productive to plunge into the fray. [Take out example, let's keep focus!].

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  • I don't think I've invalidated any answers, but I made a significant edit to the question. – apaul Oct 3 '17 at 2:34
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    Dear @apaul34208 thanks for updating the question and warning earlier respondents; that's some nice SE etiquette right there. I don't think this answer needs to change but I did want to mention this new quote from your Q: "I still think I'm right, 'cause I am". I like your style, sir. – akaioi Oct 3 '17 at 2:39
  • Sometimes learning to embrace your flaws is an interpersonal skill, but then again sometimes... well, you see what happens. – apaul Oct 3 '17 at 2:41
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Permit yourself to slow down. Like OldPadawan, I would reference Sun-Tzu's arguments for not fighting until you know you can win. However, I take a different spin on it, based on how I approached life. I was someone who "had to be right," and it has taken a while to overcome that (and/or I'm still trying to overcome it, depending on who you talk to ;-) )

Please forgive this for being a little rambling. The whole idea could get boiled down into three concepts ("strive to not lose," "move to the better position," and "play the long game"), but it's not easy to guess how you would respond to each of them, so I've expounded a bit on each of them. It's a much easier topic to converse about, rather than using a StackExchange Q&A pattern.

The first key I have found is to decouple "me winning" from "you losing." In a combative situation, we have a tendency to try to make the other guy lose, and then we feel we win by default. Of course, as you have noticed, this has the result of you expending great effort to cause someone else to lose, and only then realizing that you got less out of your win than you put into the fight. Your real goal is to win at life (and no, I won't tell you how to win at life). Whether they win or lose can be rather unimportant.

Once you're comfortable with the idea of trying for "me winning" rather than trying for "you losing," the next step is more subtle. Instead of going for "me winning," go for "me not losing." At first pass, those seem the same, but then you start to consider the more nuanced sides of it. In a boxing fight, often one goes for "not losing" in the first few rounds because one feels they have the stamina to outlast their opponent, and then go for the "win" later.

The version I was taught in my martial arts was to "move to a more advantageous position." Rather than trying to win right away, merely move to a position where you can win with less effort later, using your opponent's own energy. It's not easy. In fact, I think it's the hardest thing I know of to do. But it's terribly useful.

Once you get used to it, you realize two things:

  • You don't have to let go of any argument. If you're only trying to not lose, then you can let any number of arguments just sit there, until you decide that one of the arguments is important enough to go after and try to win.
  • You can let go of any argument you please. If you ever decide that dropping an argument is winning for yourself, then just drop it! Let your opponent "win," because you won something bigger.

The secret to this approach is time. You don't have to commit to winning the argument right away. You can stand back and take your time to decide if this is an argument worth committing to.

One approach I have taken for this is to play devil's advocate for practice. I have found a few groups who are willing to entertain me playing the devil's advocate for positions that nobody else would ever touch with a 10 foot pole. Do it politely. Polite argument is a great skill to learn in general, but it's utterly essential when you're arguing why the Holocaust was a good thing (and the only reason you're arguing that was because someone was making the far more reasonable argument that the Holocaust was a very bad thing, and you took the opposing viewpoint). If you're arguing a position that you, yourself, don't even agree with, you better be DANG polite while you do so.

This is great practice for many reasons:

  • You should lose the argument most of the time. When most people agree on a position (such as with any argument involving Nazis), there's usually a pretty good reason why everyone agrees on it, even if the particular person you're debating with don't have the skill to argue it. Since this isn't your personal pet topic to debate, you are in a position to practice letting the argument go, and trying for "happy."
  • You are playing a long game, trying to be happy in the long run. My position as a devil's advocate depends heavily on my reputation for putting together well mannered arguments. When you're willing to argue the pros of slavery, racism, government surveillance, or any other one of a number of trigger issues for people, you have to develop a reputation for making your interaction worthwhile. This long game approach gives you many more opportunities to define a rich and robust definition of happiness. As an example, if someone puts together a particularly good argument, I typically take the time to thank them for their time and effort. If I personally learn something, I thank them for that. If they're having trouble poking holes in my argument, I'll hit for both sides, helping them out so that we can keep going. Whatever it takes to find that greater happiness that's bigger than the argument.
  • It's very good practice at not losing. So often we strive so hard to "win" that we overcommit and put ourselves in a bad position. As a devil's advocate, arguing very tenuous positions, its far more important to have the skill to stay afloat. I find this very important for your particular question. When asked "would you rather be happy or right," this approach suggests a third option: being able to make that decision later. When you're being asked to take a side on whether it should be legal to abort babies inseminated with Hitler's frozen semen, it's really really nice not to have to truly pick between happy or right until you get to see how the first few back and forths go!

Over time, you will untrain that "pitbull" approach, but retain all the skills you need in case you ever really want to lock down on something. Then you become a happy pitbull. You become one of those pitbulls that people use for the argument that pitbulls are happy loving creatures who want nothing but to make their owners happy. Be that kind of pitbull.

Pitbull!

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  • I don't think I've invalidated any answers, but I made a significant edit to the question. – apaul Oct 3 '17 at 2:34
  • @apaul34208 It's all good. I love meta-questions about themselves! I still defer to the happy pitbull picture! – Cort Ammon Oct 3 '17 at 2:39
  • "I have found a few groups who are willing to entertain me playing the devil's advocate for positions that nobody else would ever touch with a 10 foot pole." I can remember having one of these with you over on Worldbuilding... – apaul Oct 3 '17 at 2:46
  • I kind of get it now, but it's still pretty messed up. – apaul Oct 3 '17 at 2:53
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Ugh, so hard. I get it. "Yes I'm upsetting people--and myself--but I'm right. Doesn't right and wrong matter to anyone?!?"

This is going to sound condescending, and it is, because we first did this with our five year old nephew, but start by asking yourself, "Is this a big problem, or a little problem?" It's worked with my husband to help gain some perspective. If it's a big one, keep fighting. But if it's a little one, challenge yourself to find one little problem next week to let go. That's your goal. Not to pick and choose all your battles, but to find one that you can let go. It's hard for people like us, I know. Convince yourself that you're doing a good deed in letting someone think they're right. I mean if they're that wrong they probably don't get to feel that way often, right?

Then see how it goes. Repeat as needed until it becomes more of a habit, and remind yourself that this is in your best interests (theirs too, but be selfish for right now).

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  • Ooh, and go be wrong somewhere. It's good practice. – user3306 Oct 4 '17 at 21:08
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The problem isn't how to pick your arguments; the problem is you feel the need to be right. This makes you far more likely to be wrong, because your reaction is to assert dominance rather than question your intuition.

I'd advise reading Socrates. His most famous quotation being: I know that I know nothing. Which is to say people think they know things, but what they think they know is rarely true. What we do know is that we are ignorant; intellectual humility is the foundation of knowledge. Even something which is plainly factual has no guarantee of being true, scientific knowledge has a half life.

If you really do believe yourself naturally ignorant rather than naturally correct, you will approach conversation differently. In this case you'll begin to view conversation as a means to learn and test knowledge, instead of as a means to prove yourself.

You'll need to train yourself. Consider the process at work: we encounter something, and will react to it emotionally. We then post-rationalise this reaction, and develop a thought which we can communicate. At this point we can catch ourselves, and choose to pause for thought. Now we have the opportunity to question our intuition. Is it actually true? If we're engaging with people online we can just go away and Google to double check (being careful not to cherry pick or to be a slave to confirmation bias). If we're discussing things in person we can ask a question.

At this point we might actually find we are incorrect. No harm there, we've learned something. Let's assume we're not. In this rare moment we're actually right about something. Are we going to gain anything from pushing the point? Probably not.

You've got to try and read between the lines to see why someone is saying something. The truth doesn't matter to most people anyway, and is rarely the motivating factor. You evidence this yourself; you want to be right. Is this person likely to concede the point? Probably not. So what do we gain from the exchange?

If we genuinely want to understand their perspective, or to clarify their point; we can ask a question. The best way to challenge a point is the Socratic method. You question what they mean by X. At that point you're likely to find out whether they're just operating on herd memes which confirm to their bias... in which case they don't care about truth and there's no point asserting it, or you find something unexpected and can delve deeper with more questions.

The crux of the issue is that you need to train your introspection, which allows you to second guess yourself. From that you gain the ability to know whether you'd gain anything from insisting a point. Most of the time you will gain nothing.

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Should I learn to let things go? How do I figure out which things to let go?

Reflection. What battles have you won that have really benefited you in the long run? And if you won those battles, what did those victories teach you? Did you learn to fight more or less from those victories?

Just from the sound of your question, even the "victories" seem to have taught you to fight since you rewarded for those victories. You sound like the gambler who won a big gamble once and continues to gamble to get that taste of winning again. The gambler's victory actually causes further problems.

Remember, that your "victories" may have had unintended consequences that you don't realize for others (since we're talking conversational and interpersonal victories). For a simple example of this, one friend of mine once alienated a guy she had a huge crush on through a verbal victory. Little did she know, the guy considered her before that event, but not after that. Given the context, we all knew it was a poor choice.

Still, there will be sometimes you do need to stand up (ie: a social bully), which is why reflecting over these moments is important. We should always hope that we don't get into conflicts though and do everything possible to avoid them unless absolutely necessary. As an example, if I stand up to a social bully, I don't see it as a victory or feel proud, but rather feel bad that the situation had to result in that. I'm also reminded in these situations that I want to seek consensus and be kind to others; bullies are awful and they put people in a bad place.

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