I remember my father telling me years ago that it takes two to argue. I didn't quite believe him at the time because it seemed as if some people could argue with a brick wall. Only after studying and practicing CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) did I realize that he was right.
Although it sometimes feels as if we get pulled into arguments by others stating their views as if they're facts, this is not true. We do get pulled into arguments, but it is an inside job. The forces pulling us into an argument are not other people; our own beliefs do the pulling. It may sound unbelievable - I know that's how I reacted to this concept initially. The good news is that understanding this helps us figure out how to stop allowing it and to keep the peace with others who seem to be pushing our buttons. We can all learn how to do this, and keep the peace during the holidays.
Argument outcomes can vary from those that settle down and lead to greater understanding, to those that escalate to the point of bitterness, anger, and resentment. Still other arguments end with people agreeing to disagree. The evidence is clear that disagreements and arguments can go in many directions. What is often unclear, are the factors that lead to these different outcomes.
No one person is always right, or is always argumentative. There is no one person who comes out on the top or bottom of every disagreement. So, what causes arguments to escalate? People often point to the more obvious, observable factors such as stubbornness, sarcasm, not letting things go, raising voices and insults. But what causes these? Why do we insist on another person agreeing with us?
There are two irrational beliefs that play some part in this. One is that we can actually make another person agree with us. We may believe that if we argue just one more point, get a little bit louder, or pull others in to support our view, that we can impose control on the mind of another person. But is this possible? Can we reach into another person's mind and put our opinions in it? Even if it is a fact? The answer of course, is no. People believe what they believe. Even if we pull out a dictionary or research that proves our point, another person's beliefs about it, are their own; we cannot touch them. We may be able to have a civil discussion and plant some seeds that the other person may decide to either discard or nourish, but even if we are 100% certain and have tons of evidence to back it up, we can't control what is in another person's mind.
The other belief that can lead us to pull ourselves into arguments is that not only can we make the other person agree or understand our point, but that we have to. The more a person insists on arguing and imposing his or her view on others, and "making" them understand, the stronger this belief is. When we believe things are critical for whatever reason, that we need to do something, we feel and act as if it's true. Our brains don't filter out false beliefs on their own. But we can use CBT skills to do it ourselves.
So, what do people believe when they are not only able to walk away from an argument, but are able to feel at peace doing this? With CBT we know about the relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We know that they are typically aligned. So if we are walking away and feeling at peace about it, our thoughts might include the following:
No matter how strongly I feel about this, I cannot force others to agree.
I can share my view and hope they understand.
If they disagree, continuing to argue my point will only escalate conflict.
I would like to keep the peace between us.
Others have a right to their views, just as I have a right to mine.
I can tolerate them having a different belief than mine.
I only want them to agree, I do not need them to agree.
If these thoughts seem unnatural to you, that's OK. We have repeated and practiced everything we have learned that has become familiar and natural to us - the same is true with thoughts and thought patterns. If you have a habit of getting pulled into disagreements and arguments, the pathways of believing you can and must change others' beliefs are strong. For any CBT skills to be effective, we have to practice them. Try practicing and elaborating on the rational, healthy thoughts above, add some of your own, and keep in mind the goal of keeping the peace. If you feel another person is trying to pull you in, remember, they can't. And thank goodness for that.
MARSHA MANDEL, MA, LMHC, CCTP
Master Accelerated Resolution Therapy Clinician
National Accelerated Resolution Therapy Trainer
National SAF-T Trainer
Certified Clinical Trauma Professional