Wait, why are we fighting?

The two different conversations that are actually happening during an argument.

Researchers at Stanford did a study in 1975 where they presented students suicide notes. Some of the notes were fake and written by the researchers, while others were real and had come from the LA County Police Department. The students were trying to determine which were fake and which were real.

The researchers came back and told half the students that they were geniuses at this task, they had gotten 24 of the 25 correct. They told the others that they did poorly at the task, only getting 10% correct. Obviously, this was a continuation of the experiment. They later told the students that they had lied, in actuality everyone did about the same, there was no “genius” group and no poor performing group. Then they asked the students to rate how well they think they did in reality compared to the others.

The students who had formerly been told they did very well all continued thinking they did better than the average student. The students who had been told they did poorly continued thinking they did worse than the average student. This happened despite having just been told that everyone did about the same!

What is happening here?

They began identifying with their belief.

Identifying With Beliefs

As we develop opinions and stances on subjects, something interesting happens. We start identifying ourselves by those beliefs. We begin equating who we are with what we think. We don’t just have an opinion, we become the person that holds that opinion. And this phenomenon gets stronger when our opinions are challenged.

It is actually fairly easy to admit that we are wrong about something or change our minds. What is hard is to change our concept of who we are, to admit to ourselves that we are not who we thought we were. This is difficult for our psyches to handle. So when our sense of who we are is bound up with a believe we hold, changing our ideas effectively becomes changing who we are.

The outcome of this is that when someone disagrees with us and tells us our opinion is wrong, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s wrong or not. What our psyche hears is, “You are wrong, not just incorrect but faulty.” We can’t abide by that, so we fight back.

Two Conversations

Once our psyche starts interprets what’s being said as different from what’s actually being said, the argument splits into two levels.

The first is the level of content. This is the actual words being spoken. This is where we bring out all our rational arguments, logical trickery, and examples of why the side we’re arguing about is right and the side the other is arguing about is wrong.

The second is the level of emotion. This is the level of charge we bring to the argument. This is why we can get SO worked up over something as trivial as taking out the trash or whether I prefer Mac’s to PC’s.

The place we get tripped up is that we don’t know the conversation has split. We aren’t consciously aware that the emotional level is not only taking place but is really driving the bus. This level of conversation dictates the level of charge, anger, hurt feelings, and ad hominem attacks.

At the emotional level, we are defending our person-hood. At the content level, we are defending our opinion. This is the two conversations that happen at the same time without us being aware of it. And when we think people are criticizing our humanity while we keep pretending we’re arguing about the content, then we get into troubles.

How to prevent this? Tune in next week….

1 comment

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  • Thanks for this! Well stated, and you outline the struggle that many people have, getting emotionally heated in disagreements over opinions.

    Looking forward to the second half – how to get out of the trap

Tim has been practicing and teaching interpersonal relations and communications skills since 2006. He leads the esteemed Boulder T-Group community and has taught circling and relational leadership for the Integral Center and C4 Institute.


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