I HEART Your Sweater; Here’s Why You’re Wrong

Does the guy you’re arguing with have nice teeth? Maybe he’s an outstanding orator or just deeply passionate about his views. Perhaps he owns a sweet Christmas sweater.

Tell him.

Acknowledge what you like, what the audience likes; emphasize the positive.

Too often in arguments, we focus on “winning” or dominating our opponents. We want to make them look bad because, by contrast, we look good. This stirs up feelings of anger and aggression or sometimes fear and hatred. It’s us vs them! Aside from having detrimental effects on your poise, this attitude can harm your ethos and make you an ineffective rhetor.

Remember: the goal of your rhetoric is not “to win” but, instead, to achieve a certain goal. If you can “lose” the argument but still accomplish that goal, then what does “winning” really get you?

Learning to be a better rhetor means recognizing what’s in your long-term self-interest. Making someone look bad might make you feel good in the moment, but it’s not an effective strategy for growing your ethos, the most precious currency in your rhetorical vault.

One of the most counter-intuitive but effective ways to boost ethos is by complimenting your opponent and your audience…and meaning it!

Here’s why and how:

QUICK REMINDER: Ethos is a rhetorical appeal to character—the extent to which the audience trusts you, deems you an expert on a topic, or seeks your opinion.

Your Opponent (Likely) Isn’t the Devil

Chances are if you’ve evaluated the rhetorical situation and decided to participate in it, then your opponent isn’t evil—at least not to your knowledge.* Keep this in mind. Always.

  • It’s OK to agree with your opponent on some issues.
  • It’s OK to like your opponent even if you disagree with him.
  • It’s even OK to say nice things about your opponent. And you should.

Highlighting what’s good about your opposition makes them more likely to be cordial toward you, and it makes the audience more receptive to your points. Think of it as a dual matter of honesty and justice. You’re openly acknowledging that your opponent has positive qualities and giving him due—even though he’s wrong about this given issue.

This is an excellent tactic for building your reputation as an honest rhetor, someone who cares about the reality of the situation and not about winning at all costs. Talk about a boost to your ethos!


“My opponent makes a strong case for his point—one of the best I’ve ever heard.”

“One thing I really like about you, Joe, is that you’re a man of conviction. It’s rare these days, and I sincerely appreciate that you stand on your principles.”

“Argument aside, Joe wrote an awesome blog post last week about crab recipes. I tried one out last night. Amazing. Thanks for that!”

*Sometimes you may decide to participate in a rhetorical situation with someone who is evil, but in those instances, your audience is not your opponent. If that’s the case, ignore this first point and heed the next few instead.

You Guys & Gals Rock!

Sometimes you just can’t muster the intestinal fortitude to say nice things about the guy you’re arguing with. OK. Don’t panic. You still have the audience!

Everyone likes to be complimented. As long as it’s sincere (see below) then the context almost doesn’t matter. Adam Carolla recently made this point quite succinctly on his podcast:

Co-Host: That guy complimented you because you’re the boss. He’s brown-nosing.
Adam: Good. Even better. That means I’m important enough to be brown-nosed.

Giving someone a compliment, even in a group setting, shows that you appreciate them. Whether it’s a small group in class, a crowd outside a bar, or an auditorium of fans, these people are spending a portion of their life listening to you. That’s a compliment that deserves a return.


“I want to take a second to thank you for being here. I know there’s a lot of competition for eyes and ears nowadays, and I appreciate your taking time to listen.”

“You are the quietest audience I’ve ever not heard! You listen so attentively. Thank you.”

“I’ve never had an audience who actually laughs at my jokes. You’re making my night.”

The Situation (Not the Body Builder) Deserves Your Praise

I’ve been in situations where my opponent was mean and the audience was terrible—they were texting or chatting or booing. It happens. But all is not lost on the compliment front! It’s important to stay positive even in these situations. Remember: long term self-interest. Ethos.

An easy way to maintain positivity and give compliments in tough rhetorical situations is by complimenting…the situation. No, not the Jersey Shore guy. The context. What about the context do you like? What is worthy of praise? What is unique or interesting?

Saying something nice about the rhetorical situation gives an enthymematic compliment to both your opponent and your audience. You’re kind of talking about them without really talking about them. Regardless, it works in your favor.


“I’m thrilled that we’re even having this debate. I can’t imagine a more important issue for our time.”

“Isn’t this a beautiful venue?”

“It’s a pleasure to be here. It warms my heart that I would be asked to speak.”

Mean It

The most important aspect of any compliment, any positive emphasis is sincerity. Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. Not only can most audiences spot insincerity instantly, but even if you get away with it in the moment it can come back to bite you.

I remember listing to a debate once where one debater, “Jim,” praised his opponent, “Jed,” for X virtue and Y quality. Jim went on and on…and on. (It was bizarre.) But when Jed had a moment to speak, he quietly pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and read a recent blog post where Jim had written vile things about him and his supporters. Oops. The audience was out of Jim’s reach after that.

* * * * *

Genuinely emphasizing the positive in given rhetorical situations works toward your advantage both in the moment and over time. It’s about building your ethos. You want the audiences (and opponents) to leave arguments saying, “What a swell guy!” and looking for your commentary thereafter. Building that reputation with others and in your own spirit will make you a better rhetor. Happy persuading!