Why Arguing Backfires

“Our Similarities bring us to a common ground;

Our Differences allow us to be fascinated by each other”

– Tom Robbins

Arguing: As Counterproductive As It Is Common

A sure sign that ego has triumphed over effectiveness, arguing creates a major drag on performance in our teams and organizations. Yet we see it all the time: people dismissing the views of others while zealously hawking their own opinions. These fruitless arguments, and all the bickering and bullshit they produce, are a clear signal that conversational capacity is in short supply.

Arguing Doesn’t Work

Given the amount of time and energy we spend in argument we might assume it produces something of value. But it doesn’t. Think about it. Have you ever heard anyone say, “You know, I didn’t understand or appreciate your point of view until you raised your voice, called me an idiot, and publically mocked my perspective. Thanks. That was helpful.”

No, far from productive, time spent in argument is absurdly counterproductive. As words fly, eyes roll, and tempers flare, trust withers, learning suffers, and performance plummets.

The Backfire Effect

A big reason arguing is so futile is something called “the backfire effect.” When we try to argue someone out of their point of view, our effort backfires because the other person tends to dig in deeper. The more we try to pull someone away from their point of view, in other words, the tighter they cling to it.

Because these defensive reactions are so powerful and automatic, logic and facts no longer matter. “ . . . Our brains have glitches that can make it difficult to remember that wrong facts are wrong,” says the psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky. “And trying to debunk misinformation can often backfire and entrench that misinformation stronger. The problem is even worse for emotionally charged political topics — like vaccines and global warming . . .”

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Lewandowsky goes on to explain why: “The moment you get into situations that are emotionally charged, that are political, that are things that affect people’s fundamental beliefs — then you’ve got a serious problem,” he says. “They’re going to dig in their heels and become more convinced of the information that is actually false. There are so-called backfire effects that can occur, and then the initial belief becomes more entrenched.” [This explains why a disturbing number of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 9-11 attacks even though the idea was thoroughly debunked years ago]

Little wonder arguing is such a supreme waste of time. Not only do we not convince others to change their minds, we often render the very views we were trying to change even more impervious to influence. We’re like Sisyphus, who spent all day rolling a rock up a hill only to find it back at the bottom of the hill the next morning – only thanks to the backfire effect our rock is bigger and the hill is higher.

There’s A Better Way

There’s a more intelligent way to manage diverse perspectives. Rather than avoid them, or argue over them, we can cultivate the discipline to learn from them. When harnessed appropriately, you see, contrasting points of view provide a powerful catalyst for correcting and refining our perceptions of reality.

“If people don’t engage across the divide of their differences, there is no learning,” says Ron Heifetz. “People don’t learn by looking in the mirror. They learn by talking with people who have different points of view.”

So rather than treat our differences as something to shun or shove, it’s better to explore and exploit them to spark more learning.

But to pull this off we must develop the discipline to make the pursuit of learning the driver of our behavior, to make the quest for profound insight – those wonderful “aha” moments when a blindspot in our perspective is abruptly illuminated – genuinely more important than satisfying our base egos.

Motivated by learning, we appreciate the ideas of others more like we view paintings in a gallery – not in the search for which one is “true” but as novel and contrasting ways of making sense of an issue. (How ridiculous would it be to tell the curator at a museum you were only interested in seeing the “true” paintings?)

Tom Robbins describes the value of this more learning-focused mindset:

“. . similarities are good, they’re connections, they can help us live peacefully with one another. But the differences are more important than the similarities because the differences give life its fizz, its brew. Everything that makes life really challenging and interesting emerges out of these differences. The similarities form a good foundation, create a structure, a glue to hold us all together. But the really important things in life are a result of the tensions that arise from a balance of opposites.”

Given our predilection to see things in self-serving ways that reinforce our current perceptions, a better way to make useful sense of things is to explore the views of people that make no sense to us. Rather than hold our views of reality like a piece of classical music that cannot and should not be changed, we should treat our views more like a jazz musician approaches a piece of music – open to influence, change, experiment, and learning. And as my close friend and colleague Frank Barrett points out, “Jazz involves jamming with people who don’t see things exactly the same way.”

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But this only works if we approach those people to see what their views can teach us, to explore our differences as a means to expand and improve our own thinking.

How do we do this?

Fortunately there’s a way to orchestrate conversations between people and groups with varied perspectives that sparks more learning than defensiveness, that puts our quest for “aha” moments in the driver’s seat, a way structure our dialogue so that our differences smarten us up rather than dumb us down.

Balancing candor and curiosity is key.

We candidly express our own view and then treat it like a hypotheses rather than a truth by curiously seeking alternative information and ideas. We don’t sit back passively hoping a person with a different view challenges our thinking. We actively invite them to do it. We encourage them to do it.

And when other people air views that differ from our own, we inquire into those views – not to agree or to argue – but to learn.

Balancing candor and curiosity is the antithesis of argument. We’re expressing how we see things, but working just as hard to explore how others see the same issue – especially when their views contrast with our own. We’re neither arguing nor shutting down because we’re less concerned about being right or comfortable and more focused on what counts: working with others to generate a better understanding of the issue at hand so we can make the smartest choices possible.

With a cultivated desire to learn that is greater than our habitually defensive reactions to ideas that seem out of sync with our own, we’re more approachable. Our demeanor reflects a focus on making intelligent decisions rather than inflating our ego, because a challenge to our thinking provokes a candid and curious response, not a defensive one. And with this more humble and learning-focused bearing, we provoke less defensiveness in others, thereby helping them bring forward their best thinking.

Conversational Capacity

Our ability to converse this way under pressure – simultaneously candid and curious – is the measure of our conversational capacity. When it’s low our differences present an obstacle to learning. When it’s high, they provide a means to it.

The messier and more adaptive the predicament we’re facing – where learning is the key to moving forward – the more we need the discipline to create and occupy this conversational space. It’s a pivotal competence that determines whether we learn from conflict or trip over it.

Besides, when it comes to addressing the issues that matter most, doesn’t learning sound far more fun than arguing?

To Learn More:

To learn more about conversational capacity and how to build it, I encourage you to read my book Conversational Capacity: The Secret To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure Is On.

And to learn more about the backfire effect, click here: How To Debunk False Beliefs Without Having It Backfire

Craig Weber

Known for his impactful work and his engaging delivery, Craig Weber is a sought after speaker, author, and consultant. His pioneering ideas about conversational capacity and adaptive learning are outlined in his bestselling book, Conversational Capacity: The Key To Building Successful Teams That Perform When The Pressure Is On (McGraw-Hill, 2013), his new book Influence in Action: How to Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference (McGraw-Hill, 2019), and his popular Conversational Capacity eCourse.