How to argue if you want to succeed in relationships, work, and life.
And where “The Wire” meets the road.
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Arguments happen and will continue. But what happens after? Do you walk away feeling better about the interaction? Did you learn something new? Do you still like the person? How about yourself? Before you open your mouth to argue, ask yourself what your end goal is and who your opponent is. The answers will calibrate your enthusiasm for being right and likely modulate the force you use to establish your position. Then and only then, consider the following.
Cognitive dissonance is a real uncomfortable pickle. It’s the discordant mental state of having conflicting beliefs, desires, and/or actions. But when those conflicts are pointed out, the person has one of two choices. Either reduce their cognitive dissonance by aligning their beliefs and admitting their mistakes and the consequences thereof, possibly giving up some benefits, or getting agitated and defending/rationalizing their stance. Which one is easier, do you think? Sadly, doubling down can turn an otherwise productive discussion into an unresolved disagreement. And the more people defend themselves, the higher the investment, the less likely they will change their minds. They won’t hear what is said. Instead, they reinforce the rationalization pathway to reducing their cognitive dissonance.
For example, when AOC showed up at the Met Gala in an expensive designer white dress, a costly hairstyle, and designer gold hoops, after paying upwards of $35K to be there, her “Tax the Rich” message attracted plenty of critics pointing out the contradiction. Her response of “I would like to support the Met” elicited a smirk from the unconvinced. “Just donate the money,” they said, calling her hypocritical, to which she responded with “I was one of several in attendance,” a form of the what about-ism bias I discussed last week in the How NOT To Argue post. Clearly, she chose the option to rationalize her way out of her cognitive dissonance.
So, if you are going to argue, first learn to spot cognitive dissonance in others and yourself. Starting with yourself. Because it makes you the smart person with some dumb opinions and conflicting beliefs. It causes you, personally, lots of suffering. It makes you feel surrounded by crazy, dumb, selfish, or deranged people. It isolates you on an island of your own arrogance.
Assuming you have a high degree of self-awareness, you can recognize your cognitive dissonance by how it feels. When you start losing track of an argument, feeling agitated, raising your voice, feeling righteous, accusatory, and morally superior, trying to win instead of seeking to understand and learn, take a deep breath! Force yourself to take a moment. If you feel panic underneath all that, if you feel your integrity, expertise, motivation, and intelligence questioned, your opponent is triggering your cognitive dissonance. As you slow down, you can return to discussing as there’s no need for a fight, excuses, and rationalizations. You stand a chance of your rationality coming back and an opportunity to explore a different perspective that may even be more in line with reality.
Here’s what cognitive dissonance looks like in terms of behavior. These signs manifest in all of us. If you catch yourself doing more than one of these, go deeper. Locate that cognitive dissonance!
1) Appearing (feeling) surprised by new information, immediately discounting or ignoring it, and still not adjusting perspective.
2) Misrepresenting the other person’s perspective – the “what you are saying” straw man strategy and missing the forest for the tree.
3) Assuming or misreading ill intent of the opposite side: “You think I am stupid!” “Are you trying to fool me?”
4) Inventing new rationalizations as the ones you had before are addressed. I call it the “yeah, buts….” Many of these are entirely irrational. Like when you need to lose weight to avoid a heart attack, but you overeat “because it’s your birthday” and later again “because you had a hard day at work.”
5) Angry and escalating yelling. That’s literally fighting, an attempt to “power over” someone’s opinion, as they get closer to exposing our blinders.
6) Ad Hominem attacks, also discussed last week in How NOT To Argue.
While you can choose to take a breath and a moment to recalibrate your emotional state, you cannot simply tell your opponent to do the same. Trying will result in even more pushback. You may come across patronizing, offensive, and arrogant.
You can de-escalate the situation by shifting the focus with a joke that has nothing to do with your opponent, and it does not make light of what is being discussed and somehow relates to the situation. As people joke and laugh, they connect. Minds relax and re-open to hearing something different. For example, watch Bill O’Reilly and Jon Steward discuss white privilege on the Tonight Show in 2014.
Looking for ways to connect instead of accusing or demeaning wins every time. People gear up against a perceived enemy. They relax around friends. If you want to win an argument, you can’t view your opponent as the enemy. Instead, consider the interaction a friendly spar where you could exercise some valuable people skills.
1) Respect! Respect the time someone gives you, their willingness to share, and the complexity of human experience which originates the various biases and points of view.
2) Listen! Your listening can uncover what lurks underneath sentences. Opposing white privilege could be a form of feeling that your own effort in making it to where you are remains unacknowledged. If you find it possible to watch the interview above and walk away feeling as if you can see both perspectives, you did listen. Regardless of your opinion on the subject, who came across as arguing better?
3) Stick to facts while acknowledging your opponent’s feelings. Facts don’t care about feelings, but feelings determine which facts people pick out and how they interact with them. Also, acknowledge your feelings while you are at it. Don’t let your emotions dictate how you present the facts or which facts you decide to ignore. Going back to white privilege, redlining was established as fact. Some people feel it was unfair then and recognize similar sentiments still today. Others see the connection of redlining to declining neighborhoods, crime, and poverty. Yet, others say that since it is illegal now, no one has any excuses to remain where they are. You don’t have to agree. But you do have to understand where people come from and why they view facts the way they do. Then offer more facts instead of invalidating someone’s experience and feelings. Stay rational.
4) Question! If you feel that your point is not coming across, ask questions to find out where you left your opponent, rephrase, and clarify. Alternatively, ask questions to understand what you may be missing. Ask questions of your opponent on specific aspects of your argument you think both of you can acknowledge as common understanding and mutual agreement instead of looking for a blanket concession.
5) Don’t drag everything, and the kitchen sink into an argument. You clutter the scene, dilute the point, and provoke defense. Also, no one likes to hear the same old stuff every time you feel like you’re losing an argument.
6) Accept the fact that you may not be able to change everyone’s mind. Some minds are unchangeable. People have a lot invested in their positions. When opinions are part of their identity, good luck trying to sway them. If it requires an identity shift, it requires more than you may be equipped to handle. If this person is important to you, you may consider not having that argument. Place mine warnings around subjects and have ways to evade discussing them. Especially if they do not directly affect your life. If they do, arm yourself with lots of patience and practice the other skills on this list.
7) If there is ever any danger to your safety, don’t argue! Don’t argue with a guy with a gun. Don’t argue with a drunk. Don’t argue with an abusive significant other - plan your escape.
8) Remember that not all arguments are worth having no matter how tempting or justified you feel. Don’t argue with the server in a restaurant if you want your food warm and uncontaminated. Don’t argue with someone who’s got your life in their bureaucratic hands and could make it miserable for you. There are ways to address a situation without getting into a confrontation when one will not be in your best interest.
Personally, I try not to argue. I like litigating a point and having discussions. That’s not to say I don’t lose my shit from time to time. Most of the time, I manage to keep my mouth shut long enough to either find a way to say what needs to be said the way it needs to be said or until I realize something does not need to be said.
Practice, practice, practice. Practice makes better.
A few years ago, I got hooked on “The Wire.” Probably, because of its realness in which multiple perspectives came together to form a universe of crime, characters, moral dilemmas, and shades of truth, righteousness, necessity, greed, and the pursuit of happiness in many subjective forms. Later, I happened to be in Baltimore, MD. I asked an Uber driver to take me to some of the iconic places where the action happened. He absolutely refused. Said, it’s more dangerous than I think.
Today, I watched a Vice documentary by Michael K. Williams who played Omar in “The Wire” about the current epidemic of car hijackings on the streets of Newark, NJ.
“When people feel like society has pushed them to such a corner, that’s their only way out, to hold people up at gunpoint,” he said.
Aljazeera recently reported that crime in America sored in 2021. Covid, gun violence, riots, poverty, and racism were found to be root causes. Rising homicide rates affected big cities and the small ones to the tune of 30% more than last year, the largest increase on record. Black and brown communities feel most of it. David A. Grahm, recently wrote in The Atlantic that America is having a violence wave, not necessarily just a crime wave.
No matter how snug we feel in our bubbles, the world out there encroaches. It asks no permission. Multiple realities stare us in the face. We can no longer ignore them because they bleed into our safe spaces and demand attention. How did we, as a society, fail so many people? Or did they fail themselves? Can we really blame them? Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries believes in second chances and social enterprises because “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Yet, many with jobs struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Here are the stories of seven individuals in a documentary by “Real Stories” about wealth inequality in the US and the UK. Questions of survival, motivation, what it takes to “make it” and do well maybe experienced subjectively and yield different results, but policies can skew the playing field.
Thank you for reading.
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