Jan 24 2019
Disagreements are unavoidable, but if you keep an eye on the prize, stuff a sock in your ego, and help your rational brain overcome your emotional brain, it’s amazing how often you can get what you want.
As I write this, we are in our fourth week of a partial government shutdown, primarily because our president and the speaker of the House can’t seem to stuff a sock in their egos and get their emotions in check.
When we argue about something we feel passionately about, it can be hard to remain rational. The part of our brain that controls higher thinking, the prefrontal cortex, gets clubbed by the caveman part of our brain, the amygdala.
When we feel threatened during an argument, the amygdala has a hard time differentiating an argumentative threat from the type of threat that a saber-toothed tiger may have posed. In an effort to keep us alive, the amygdala immediately sends oxygen to our extremities so we can fight or flee. This takes oxygen away from our brains and, you guessed it, away from the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that recognizes that your colleague’s argument is offensive but not life-threatening.
Breathe into the Corners
To win arguments, we must get our prefrontal cortex back in control. Focused breathing is a great start. I recommend “square breathing” or imagining yourself breathing into the corners of a box. First, take a deep breath and imagine all the air going into the upper left corner of a box. Hold your breath for four seconds. Then exhale slowly for four seconds as you imagine moving to the upper-right corner. Hold for four seconds. Then use another four-second inhale to move to the lower-right corner. Hold for four seconds, and exhale slowly to get to the lower-left corner. The first time you make it around the box, your heart will probably still be hammering, but a few times around the square and it’ll begin to slow down.
Respond with Curiosity
When someone is verbally belligerent, it’s hard not to respond defensively, but that response only confirms the expectations of the person attacking. “Yep, we’re arguing. I must respond accordingly.” If instead, you respond with curiosity, you change the dynamic. If you try to figure out what is causing the fear and/or anger, it can make the belligerent person pause.
Find Common Ground
That pause is an opportunity to look for common ground. In the current political situation, Republicans and Democrats are at war over a border wall. President Trump wants one; Speaker Pelosi does not. If this argument remains focused on the wall, we may never have a functioning government again.
President Trump says he wants a border wall to safeguard Americans. Speaker Pelosi says she also wants to safeguard Americans but she doesn’t think a wall will get the job done. Leaving all the political maneuvering aside for a moment (politicians pandering to their bases), if this were really about safeguarding Americans, the government shutdown could be over in an hour. Both sides want to safeguard Americans–they have a common goal.
Kick Your Ego to the Curb
Now, even with a common goal, arguments rarely just end. There are lots of ways to achieve a goal and during the course of an argument, people often become invested in winning rather than accomplishing that goal. Our egos are powerful and, like the amygdala, not the most rational parts of us. So if we want to end arguments and still accomplish the goal, we need to figure out how to create win-win solutions. If you can help your opponent score a win, you’re a lot more likely to get what you want.
Will either of you get everything you want? Probably not. In most cases is some better than none? Definitely. Just ask all the federal employees not getting a paycheck right now. Do you think they’d be happy with a compromise, regardless of their political affiliations? I sure think so.
So the next time you feel your heart racing in response to a verbal attack, breathe, put your ego in check, and remember why you engaged in the first place. If you keep your eye on the prize, you’re a lot more likely to walk away with a win.