You’re in a tense conversation with a friend trying to defend your position on a political leader and his policies and start to feel yourself losing ground. Your voice gets louder. You talk over one of your colleagues and correct his point of view. He pushes back, so you go into overdrive to convince everyone you’re right. It feels like an out of body experience – and in many ways it is. In terms of its neurochemistry, your brain has been hijacked.
It is a common scenario especially with high voltage political campaigns around the world. However this can happen even in a simple conversation between couples regarding the child’s future which can convert into an ugly argument.
By definition an argument is a series of statements typically used to persuade someone of something or to present reasons for accepting a conclusion. So what goes in our brain that makes us lose the argument and the other win inspite of us knowing more relevant facts but we simply can’t win the argument. The fact that everyone believes that they are right is well known but the reason some people win the argument has to do with changes in the brain which the other ones don’t have.
We all know that there are two parts of the brain, the right and the left hemisphere. These hemisphere are joined by fibrous tract known as the corpus callosum. The thickness of the corpus callosum determines the cross connection between two sides of the brain. Any conversation requires the valid points to be remembered from the hippocampus (memory storage part of the brain) and the impulse is transferred to the thinking brain (Left parietal and frontal lobe) and then to the right counterpart to form a meaningful sentence and finally to the speech center. This sounds very complicated but you can actually imagine the brain overworks when we get into an argument and hence we feel exhausted by the end of it.
So people having thickened corpus callosum fibers tend to hasten this process and are able to come up with valid points supporting their point of view. Also they will end up remembering and speaking the right thing at the right time. Women surprisingly by birth have a thicker corpus callosum and the saying that you can never win a conversation with a woman holds true.
The other reason is stress and persons behavior which make him prone to get worked up. In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our emotional and reactive brain, takes over.
The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself – in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong – and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him). This another reason why we end up losing the argument.
The moment we shift from logical reasoning to emotional implosion we start losing the argument. This is the area where we can work upon and can be highly effective. Going further I will try to explain why some people end up in arguing on a regular basis.
The stress created in an argument prevents the honest and productive sharing of information and opinion. But, I can tell you that the fight response is by far the most damaging to any relationships. It is also, unfortunately, the most common. That’s partly due to another neurochemical process.
When you argue and win your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right. So what goes on in our mind that we start losing the conversation and hence these series of cascade of neurochemicals flooding our mind.
Luckily, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal as a leader should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding (at least in the context of communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.
Here are a few exercises for you to do at work to help addiction to being right:
Deciding Rules of engagement. If you’re heading into a conversation that could be a little difficult, start by outlining rules of engagement. For example, you might agree to give people extra time to explain their ideas and to listen without judgment. These practices will counteract the tendency to fall into harmful conversational patterns. Afterwards, consider see how you and the person did and seek to do even better next time.
Empathetic listening. In one-on-one conversations, make a conscious effort to speak less and listen more. The more you learn about other peoples’ perspectives, the more likely you are to feel empathy for them. And when you do that for others, they’ll want to do it for you, creating a virtuous circle.
Speak one at a time. In situations when you know one person is likely to dominate a group, create an opportunity for everyone to speak. Ask all parties to identify who in the room has important information, perspectives, or ideas to share. List them and the areas they should speak about on a flip chart and use that as your agenda, opening the floor to different speakers, asking open-ended questions and taking notes.
Arguments are a way of life. We live, we love, we argue, we make up. Sometimes though, arguments cause breakage – of relationships, families and people. The more we can understand about how we argue, the more deliberate we can be in responding to conflict in such a way as to preserve the relationship.