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In Pursuit of Winning,
We All Lose

In Pursuit of Winning,
We All Lose

To have better arguments, take winning off the table.

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

This was Vince Lombardi’s uncompromising message to the Green Bay Packers when he addressed the team as its new coach on its first day of training camp in 1959.

It’s a philosophy that Lombardi has been linked to ever since. It appears to neatly sum up the ethos of a man who never suffered a losing season, won seven National Football League championships, and made such a habit of winning, they even named the Super Bowl trophy in his honor.

If ever there was a crusader for the virtue of winning, it was Lombardi, right?

“I wish to hell I’d never said the damned thing,” said Lombardi shortly before his death. “I meant the effort. … I meant having a goal. … I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”

It’s tough to spot such nuance in today’s political and civil discourse. Our society often champions the belief that winning is, in fact, the only thing that matters.

That’s increasingly led us to glorify rhetorical wins, punish losses, and view most arguments as binary. This doesn’t mean we should shy from engaging others in debate. Arguments are the foundation of healthy American civic life.

But when winning becomes the sole aim of an argument, one tends to view those with different points of view as adversaries—others who should not be heard and to whom ground cannot be ceded. Never mind if human values and morality are crushed along the way.

When we engage in zero-sum arguments, we can end up losing sight of why we’re debating in the first place. We end up belittling and dehumanizing each other. We make others instinctively recoil to protect themselves from contrarian views that disregard their lived experience. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where all that we remember from a conversation is the pain or regret we felt afterward rather than the argument itself. Even if we won the argument, was it worth the cost?

What if, instead of entering into an argument to “win,” we approached arguments with the understanding that there are bad ways to argue and good ways to argue? That the act of arguing doesn’t require each side to score “points,” and the aim is to listen as intently as we want to be heard. What if we engaged one another with the possibility of forming ongoing connections and deeper understanding, even if we don’t agree?

Principles of a Better Argument

  • Take winning off the table
  • Pay attention to context
  • Prioritize relationships and listen passionately
  • Embrace vulnerability
  • Make room to transform

Taking winning off the table doesn’t deny us the good that can come from argumentation. In fact, it enhances its potential to do good. By suspending the urge to win, we create room to grow and learn. Through open and robust dialogue, we improve our collective prosperity.

As Lombardi urged, let’s focus on the goal and the effort, not the win. Let’s reframe the way we engage each other as a community-building pursuit. That’s what the Better Arguments Project—a civic initiative founded by Allstate, The Aspen Institute, and Facing History and Ourselves to help bridge divides—sees as the first step in bringing us together.

The Better Arguments Project begins with the premise that when winning isn’t a consideration, we’re able to focus on the argument itself. It makes it possible to prioritize relationships and listen passionately so that we can hear the context behind each others’ words, as well as embrace one another’s vulnerabilities and allow room for ourselves to transform. It enables a construct for arguing better that emphasizes the journey, not the destination. In the end, we’re better off for it.

Perhaps we should do Lombardi a favor and venerate a different sports expression in favor of his “winning is everything” mantra: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Let’s focus on how we play the game.

To learn more about the principles of the Better Arguments Project, visit betterarguments.org.