Monday, September 20, 2010


The funny thing about most arguments is that you have two (or more) delusional participants both of whom profess to have a handle on reality.

A delusion is an invariant belief that is either false or misleading. It can be the result of being deceived or simply being lazy, (the former usually resulting from the latter). More often than not, our delusions are the result of sloppy reporting, not checking out sources and facts. We buy into a story line and we stick with it.

Psychiatrists make delusion a bit more dramatic (pathological) attributing the cause to some kind of chemical imbalance or illness. Although the pathologies vary (dogma, stupidity, denial, bipolar disorder, watching too much television, slothfulness), the dysfunction is always the same, a disconnect between what is and what you profess.

Now (for the observant) the reason I say "profess" rather than "believe" is that, except in the rare case where people are somehow chemically bound to the delusion, most delusion is the result of desire: desire that the belief be true. So, delusions are beliefs spawned from desire.

What Do You Believe?
When we argue, we are in effect selling beliefs. We sell the belief that republicans are greedy or that democrats can't seem to actually do anything. We sell the belief that eating organic beet powder is somehow better than eating MSG. We sell the belief that going to church on Sunday and Wednesday night is important. Why? Because we want others to join us in our belief. Why? Well, that's a good question.

Before embarking upon an argumentative adventure, there are three important questions to ask yourself:
  1. What is the core belief that I'm trying to sell?
  2. Why do I believe it?
  3. Why is it important for me to have someone else believe it?
The answer to the last question is the most telling; answers to other two are required to get to it.

If you start employing the above steps, you may find that you never actually get to question three. Many arguments result as the momentous culmination of situations drunk with emotion; stopping to ask yourself, What exactly am I trying to say here? can have a sobering effect, stopping the argument before it begins.

Further, question one can be answered by either party. Lately, as I've seen the inclement clouds of argument starting to form, I've started to formulate the question on behalf of the other party in a yes/no format, something on the order of, "So what you're saying is that all balding, longhaired men born between 1940 and 1960 should be driving Harley's rather than Honda's?"

Frequently, just hearing that you've been heard is enough for a would-be arguer. The argument is reduced to, "Ummm.... well... yeah."

Why Do You Believe That?
If someone is not content with having been heard, the next question is a variant of number two: "Do you actually believe that?"

In this case, many times the argument is again dramatically reduced to: "Ummm... Well... not really?"

If on the other hand, the answer is affirmative, then question two comes into play: "Why do you believe that?"

Since understanding why you believe something is some much more productive than selling a belief that you haven't really vetted, question two and the series of questions that follow it along the path to understanding are usually the end of the argument.

Why Do You Want Me to Believe That?
Sometimes you'll find someone who knows what she believes, can explain clearly why she believes it and is ready to argue, to sell you on her belief. Then question three becomes the most important question: "Why is it important that I also believe what you believe?"

Why? Because the motivation for the argument has nothing to do with the belief itself, but instead the desire that will be fulfilled if the belief is bought. Another form of question three would be, "What are you hoping to accomplish by selling me your belief?"

The answer to this question tells all and can completely short circuit an argument. The answer is telling, because despite what we often profess, motivations drive beliefs and not vice versa. Motivation is what transforms beliefs into delusions. Motivation is at the core.

Of course, there is a feedback loop connecting motivation and belief and one can easily get into a chicken-and-egg discussion. Still, I've found that understanding core motivation is much more useful than understanding core belief.

Tripped Up by Beliefs
Further, getting what you want often doesn't require your selling a belief, but instead simply and clearly stating your desire. In fact, many of us would fair better to drop the supporting beliefs and simply ask.

It all goes back to trying to sell the "but all the other kids are doing it" belief. Rather than straightforwardly asking mom and dad for a new bike, you begin by explaining how both Bobby and Mary got new bikes and how you therefore should also get a new bike. Folly indeed.

Your getting or not getting a new bike has nothing to do with Bobby or Mary. Parents the world over are quick to point this out saying,"If Bobby and Mary were to jump off bridge, would you also jump off a bridge?"

Unfortunately, you've now introduced a completely unnecessary barrier to getting a new bike. Rather than arguing the merits of your deservedness, you're stuck with arguing why Bobby's and Mary's bikes should influence you parents' decision.

As adults, because we enter arguments before answering questions one, two and three, we often find ourselves in the same position. We conjure up a belief designed to help us achieve our goals, we begin selling it, and then we're stuck with it.

At this point, the quick bailout is typically to use analogy. Strong analogy is a one of the form of communication and the worst form of argument. Fortunately, most people aren't trained in formal argument and you can often pull it off. In selling the bicycle belief, an appropriate application of analogy (or in this case simile) might be: "Not buying me a new bike when all my friends have new bikes would be like sending me to school in clothes that are smelly, dirty and three sizes to small." (This is best said with just a hint of tearfulness.)

Of course, this only works if you're not arguing with someone who's not going to respond with, "What do think I am, an idiot? Analogy has no place in formal argument!"

So, the next time someone approaches you with an argument, ask and answer:
  1. What is the core belief that you're trying to sell?
  2. Do you really believe that?
  3. Why do you believe it?
  4. Why do you want me to believe it?
You may have a completely different day.

Happy Monday, Teflon

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