My wife Terre just gave me the perfect summary of every political argument.
“You’re an idiot!”
“No, you’re an idiot!”
My question is: What emotion causes most political or religious arguments? Most people, I think, would say anger. That emotion is clearly prevalent in most arguments, but I think anger is the result of most arguments, not the cause.
What causes anger in most arguments? I think it is fear.
Once in a great while, when I fall into an argument, it starts with a comment by the other person that usually causes a “stomach drop” in me. I recognize that as a fear reaction. I am threatened, or at least something inside of me is threatened. It is as if I am hearing: “What you think you know is not true. What you have thought for the past 10 or 80 years is not true.”
It’s not that only one fact or belief is threatened. That belief is connected with other beliefs, and if one belief falls, my whole structure of beliefs is threatened. It is the shaking of the foundations. The whole structure could collapse.
Beyond that, for most people, our beliefs are connected with our tribe: our team or party or country or church. So, it’s not only that what I believe may not be true. It’s that what my whole tribe believes may not be true.
In a flash, fear gets a new name: anger. On the physical level, when we are afraid, the body produces adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone. If you choose the “fight” option, you start to defend and attack.
We must protect our point of view because it’s the same as protecting ourselves. It’s protecting the world we have lived in for a long time. It’s protecting our tribe’s beliefs.
Before an actual physical confrontation, animals give warning signs. They raise their voices, they screech, they thump their chests. Dominate or be dominated!
Humans do the same. We interrupt. We talk louder, longer, faster. We move toward the person, get in their face, etc.
The moment you recognize you are in escalation mode, it helps to ask yourself: “If a person argues with a crazy person, who is the crazy person?”
How do you stop this escalation when you recognize it?
We were fortunate to have Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, speak regularly here in Santa Barbara before he died in 2015. He used two stuffed animals to role-play an argument between two protagonists — a jackal and a giraffe. Note that a giraffe has no vocal cords, so the only thing it could do in an argument is shake its head up and down or grunt “Uh huh” periodically.
In case you missed it, I have just given you the key for never losing an argument: Don’t get into arguments!
The moment you notice defense happening in the other or yourself, back off.
Byron Katie, another great teacher whose workshops our city has been privileged to have many times, says, “Defense is the first act of war.”
Be a giraffe. If you never let a conversation become an argument, you will never lose one!
I know this may not sound very satisfying. However, the title of this article is not “How to always win an argument.” To have a winner, a loser must be created. That’s why arguments don’t work.
But if I never say anything, doesn’t that make me the loser? That gets back to why fear is the primary emotion in an argument. It is a very deep emotion: “What? You want me to not say what I believe? To give up my whole belief system? Are you crazy?”
Yet that is what’s at stake in any argument. Religion, country and politics are the deepest kinds of belief systems we have. We have a strong tendency to identify with them: “I am my belief! It’s who I am!”
No, it’s not. It’s just your story; it’s not you. It may not even be your story. It’s your tribe’s story.
That’s why giraffes never lose. They never seem to win on a small scale, but they win on the big scale. They are actually interested in not only another’s point of view, but more so why their point of view is important to them.
That’s the entryway to understanding the person himself. All of our beliefs are stories that we or other people have created. Knowing that the other person’s story is just a story reminds us that our story is just a story too. It’s knowing why the other person’s story is important to them that tells the story!
From this point of view, a win is when the other thinks: “Wow, he really wants to understand me, where I come from, what my values are!” This may create the chance that the other person may even want to return the favor!
If you don’t find yourself enlightened at this point, here is an alternative for dealing with arguments. Remember the old saying: “Don’t cast your pearls before swine. It only frustrates you and it annoys the swine!”
Frank Sanitate is a writer who lives in Santa Barbara. A former entrepreneur and seminar leader, he has conducted his seminars in every state in America and Australia and every Canadian province. He is the author of three books: “Beyond Organized Religion: An Ex-Monk Revisits Life’s Basic Questions,” “Don’t Go to Work Unless It’s Fun: State-of-the-Heart Time Management,” “Money: Vital Unasked Questions and the Critical Answers Everyone Needs.”