Why Arguments Are for Losers

14.02.2019 |

Episode #9 of the course Mastering your conversations by Jordan Thibodeau


“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” —Abraham Lincoln

Welcome back, class! Yesterday, we learned how to deepen our relationships, and today, we are going to learn about the futility of arguments.


We All Know It All!

We assume that we see the world perfectly. But you’ll notice that most people argue when their personal values conflict with someone else’s. Based on research by Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University, we are genetically predisposed to favor certain values over others. Due to this, we are more likely to side with our brain’s initial intuition and find ways to backward rationalize this intuition.


Values + Filtered data = How you believe the world works


Let’s say that you needed to get from Los Angeles to San Jose. You open up a map and get directions, but then you realize your cellphone is about to die, so you have to draw a picture of the map. You would probably start drawing the state of California, two cities, and the highway. But what about the restaurants along the way? What about the cities between San Jose and Los Angeles? Your map is perfect for your values, but what about the other places that aren’t included?

Our values provide us with a map of how we see the world. This map tells us where our minds can look for information, whom we can trust, and what we should be worried about. Most importantly, this map is incomplete.


How you believe the world works + How someone else believes the world works = Argument


We all know when the other person is wrong. Clearly, the data they’re using is from a biased website or partisan think tank.

Even if the person is right, we will continue to argue because what’s at stake is our mental map of the world. If this person pokes holes into our map, then what else could be wrong with our map? If we don’t have a map, how do we function? At the heart of each disagreement is not just the subject at hand but also the person’s core values and how they are able to function. Destabilize that, and the person’s life can get thrown into a tailspin. So, that person is going to do whatever it takes to win this argument.


Debates Are Fine But Arguments Are a Waste of Time

I would define a debate as a fact-driven discussion about a topic that both parties have meaningful control over. At your office, you debate within your team on the merits of the projects to work on. You debate with your spouse the merits of buying or renting a house. Debates are fine because they are rational discussions without demeaning either party at hand.

Arguments are emotionally-driven discussions about a topic that both parties have little or no power over. We argue about decisions that a prime minister makes even though we aren’t an elected official. We argue about our nation’s foreign policy even though we don’t have meaningful direct power over our commander-in-chief. We become emotional about this and turn potential friends into enemies because they don’t see things the way we do.

The more you understand this, the more you realize that getting into arguments with people can be a huge waste of time for the following reasons:

1. Most arguments are about throwaway topics that neither party actually has control over.

2. At the core of the argument, both parties are arguing about values. Most of the time, people aren’t going to budge on their core values, because their entire lives are built around them.

3. An argument is a condemnation of other viewpoints and does more to create an enemy you don’t need, compared to a friend you do need.

4. You fail to listen like a detective (as mentioned in the Listener’s Toolbox), resulting in a missed opportunity to learn a new thing from that person, which can make you more well-rounded and smarter. The argument builds a wall between you and new information, which can cause your understanding of the world to weaken.

So, what should you do?

1. Stop arguing and assume this person can be right too. It’s okay to disagree, but understand that arguing with someone is unproductive. Instead, spend more time listening to others. This will allow you to flesh out your map and maybe respect the other person’s “map” at the same time, which can help build bridges that can unite maps.

2. Instead of arguing with the person, imagine seeing things their way. What would it take for you to believe what they are believing? Once you understand that, you will have a greater grasp of both sides of an argument, and you’ll be able to widen the channel of communication between you two.

3. Don’t demonize the other person because they don’t agree with you. Every person on this planet wants mostly the same things: food, shelter, loved ones, friends, meaningful work, and appreciation for their contributions in this world. Knowing you have that in common with the person, focus on that instead of creating an enemy over a minor disagreement. Assume this person is well-intentioned and not the scourge of humanity.


To Do:

1. If you find yourself getting into an argument (having an elevated heartbeat, angry thoughts, and the inability to let the other person finish their statement), stop yourself. Instead of trying to argue with the person, ask better questions about the person’s values.

2. Jump into the other person’s shoes, and think about this: If you had the same genes and life experience, would that cause you to be predisposed to believe the same thing?

3. Do your best to understand their beliefs, so you have a better understanding of what you truly believe in.

Tomorrow, you’ll learn about the games people play during conversations and how to negate them.

Jordan Thibodeau

Conversation Mentor


Recommended book

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt


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