"You don't have to attend every argument to which you are invited."
~ Unknown

The Neuroscience of Arguments!

A participant in one of my workshops gave me this quote, and I am impressed with how it reminds us that we have choices about how we interact with those around us. While this seems somewhat obvious, I would imagine that many of us find these interactions almost automatic (especially around arguments). In other words, when someone “invites us to an argument” by criticizing some aspect of our lives, most of us find ourselves reacting in one of several very predictable ways. We either fight back, defend ourselves, or withdraw.

For those of you who are aware of my Top of the Mind philosophy, you know that this fight or flight tendency is driven by the lower, reactive 20% of the brain. And further, when we are coming from this lower reactive brainstem, we don’t have access to the clarity, confidence, and creativity of the “Top of the Mind” that we need to be successful in life. This is especially true when trying to be influential with others because if we are not clear about the value of our position, we won’t be able to deal with conflict from a place of confidence and creativity.

Of course, even if you are not familiar with how the brain influences communication, we all know that these fight-or-flight reactions rarely produce very satisfying results. If we fight back, we have then matched their energy, and are now part of an ever-escalating cycle of conflict that can actually result in them becoming more argumentative. If we defend ourselves, they will very likely attack our defense because they are generally not looking to understand our position, they are just trying to convince us of something. If we withdraw, they will either chase after us (trying to engage us in the argument) or believe that they have “won,” which only goes to reinforce their belief that attacking others is the way to get what they want.

Now, I am not saying that one should never fight back or withdraw. In fact, if someone is unable to fight back or stand up for their rights in a situation, then learning this skill may be exactly what is called for. Similarly, if one always “has to” fight back and doesn’t have the ability to just walk away from a confrontation, then this skill might be worth developing. What we are talking about here is not what one “should” do, but what one chooses to do. It’s all about choice.

Becoming aware that we have these choices, and then making them “on purpose” is, in my opinion, one of the crucial components in creating successful relationships or interactions. Let’s look at how this week’s quote might help us with these choices. For example, we could become more purposeful about how we respond to invitations to arguments at work. We could decide whether the situation would be improved by our standing up for our position, walking away, or not attending the argument in the first place. We could make these same decisions at home, with our friends, in our extended family, and even the strangers we encounter on a daily basis.

The bottom line is regardless who is inviting us to an argument, we are responsible for how we choose to respond to that invitation. If we have concluded that arguments are not our preferred form of communication, we can either suggest a more functional way of discussing the situation or, having determined that the relationship isn’t currently open to change, just choose to wait until the person is willing to create a more respectful interaction. Whatever the choice, the fact that we will be choosing “on purpose” should serve us in creating a more purposeful life. In fact, the next time someone invites you to an argument, you might just send them a note: “Sorry, I can’t make it… too busy living life. Feel free to start without me.”

~ All the best, Dr. Bill