Objectivity is Overrated

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Sometimes, “just sticking to the facts” is the quickest path to bitter conflict.

Arguments Abound

Although there are those among us that relish a good argument, for the most part, arguments are something we could do without. When people argue bitterly, relentlessly, and without progress, there’s often a common pattern underneath: each of the two sides of the argument has some ‘sacred cow’ belief that the other side won’t agree to. And because the option to disagree agreeably isn’t on the table, conflict ensues.

Arguments of this form tend to accelerate until one or both sides gets to the point where the other side’s belief isn’t merely in error, but outrageous, offensive, or insane. Personal or ad hominem attacks become the order of the day at this stage.

If you happen to be tracking the political deadlock in the United States over the last few weeks, you can see a nation-sized example of what I’m talking about. Democrats are incensed that Republicans are “holding the country hostage” in order to stop the implementation of national health care. Meanwhile Republicans recoil at Democrats unwillingness to negotiate on healthcare. No matter which side you land on, the other side looks corrupt, stupid, and almost demonic. Is it any wonder then that we in the US seem to be stuck with no end in sight?

Feelings Drive Beliefs and Behavior — And That’s a Fact

In conflict, we cling to what we call objectivity for any of a number of reasons. For starters, we’re taught to value facts over feelings. But as experience teaches again and again, when feelings are running high, finding facts everyone agrees on can be difficult. What’s more, while it’s not hard to construct an argument with a certain set of facts, more often than not your opponent can come up with a different set of facts that seem to support their argument. Which facts are credible or relevant can also be in doubt, making the supposedly solid ground of ‘objective facts’ anything but solid.

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Meanwhile, every serious argument has an emotional component. While we may want to ‘stick to the facts,’ that’s not what really drives people much of the time. If we all just relied on the facts, we’d never buy lottery tickets, we’d always save for a rainy day, and advertising would be all but useless. We don’t live in that world. It’s closer to the truth to say that what we pay attention to and how we see our world is driven by powerful emotions. And once we’ve acquired such a viewpoint, we are all but helpless to act in any other way than based on this particular frame of reference.

If two people are arguing passionately, there’s a good chance each of them has fallen down this emotionally-charged rabbit hole, but not the same one. And this difference of emotion, driving perception, driving the perceived ‘facts’ cements the heated deadlock.

Exit the Argument, Save the Relationship

Escaping such a relational tailspin requires skills and a willingness to let go of the goal of winning the argument. Often, when I go over past arguments with clients, they recognize that a bitter, rigid, fight-to-the-death response isn’t getting them anywhere. Sometimes the idea occurs to them that if winning the argument isn’t the point, then just conceding the argument is the way out. I’ve even seen this tried for extended periods of time, usually between husbands and wives.

However, merely giving up fails for at least two reasons. The first is that it’s usually obvious that you’re not really agreeing to the other side’s point so much as refusing to engage. Even though a freeze-out can be preferable to a blow up in the short term, this distance and coldness has the potential to undo whatever feelings of belonging existed between the two parties. A second cost is that if you were really arguing about something that mattered, and you concede, then any sense of equality or give-and-take go out the window. And while ‘taking one for the team’ may seem noble from time to time, resentment builds up when there’s no hope of being heard or getting your way.

The easiest, most reliable way to get out of arguments isn’t to win, nor is it to lose. Rather than arguing for your side, the shortest way out is to figure out what the other side is arguing, the emotional underpinnings of their argument, and why it’s so critical to them that they convince you. In order to do this, you don’t have to believe they’re right, only that they believe they’re right and that a reason exists why they believe this. Getting to this understanding requires a willingness to put aside what you think you know, in order to hear another story.

Even if you get this far, there are pitfalls. In the heat of an argument, it’s possible to get part of the way towards understanding and then fall out again. “I understand why they think that…it’s because they’re dumb!” or they’re missing the important facts or some other reason that maligns the other side. Although any of those reasons could conceivably be true, it’s more likely they’re a phantom of the hurt feelings and bitterness left over from the arguing. Try not to quit until you find an explanation for the other side’s argument that is neutral, if not complimentary, to the other side.

You’ll know you’ve arrived when you can explain the opposition’s position to them, and have them agree that you’ve got it right. And at this point, a strange thing might just happen. Now that you’ve gone to the trouble to listen to them, they may be in a better state of mind to listen to you. Disagreement may still remain, but as long as the intent to understand outweighs the impulse to fight, the argument is over.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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