How to Win the Argument Every. Single. Time.

I have conversations with people in my head all the time. It might be more accurate to call most of these conversations “confrontations.” And to anyone who knows me, that goes a long way to explaining why they take place only in my head. As someone who prefers a peaceful and friendly co-existence with people, I shy away from confrontation.

But people do upset me. And when they do, I tell them all about it. In my head. It’s the safest place to have these discussions because… I. Always. Win. I make my case brilliantly and flawlessly. My opponent either makes a weak attempt at retort or is struck dumb by my logical brilliance. They have no chance against my mighty mind.

Many things can create these worthy one-sided debates. It could be an argument online that I chose not to engage in despite having strong feelings on the subject. It could be in response to a friend’s remark that caused me to bite my tongue in silence. It could be imagining an upcoming discussion among the church elders in which I know I hold the minority position. It could be an encounter with the people at work who just went behind the scenes and stole my funding without including me in the decision making. The interesting effect of having these conversations with only me is that it reenforces the notion in my head that I’m right. It solidifies my argument. It makes me feel more confident… without risk.

This was on my mind today as I pondered a link I saw a friend share on Facebook. It said “10 Things to Ask Liberals.” I didn’t bother following the link, having seen many things like it before. 10 Ways to Prove Atheists Wrong. 10 Things to Ask Conservatives. 10 Things to Throw at Evangelicals. The list goes on. Every camp has their pat arguments that they think settle the issue.

One problem I have with these lists is the labeling. “Liberals” was not used as a usefully descriptive term for a person’s political position. It was used to denigrate and insult. Whether list makers and their readers want to admit it or not, the fact is that we have all lived our lives under different circumstances and with different experiences. We all have different personalities and interests. Different priorities. Different beliefs. Just because someone else has come to different conclusions than you doesn’t make them less than you. And it doesn’t make them wrong. They could be wrong but not have the experience to understand why. Or you could be the one that’s wrong. Or neither of you. Or both.

Most of us are ok with the notion that some people just don’t like dogs and other people feel likewise about cats. We are ok with different styles of dress, different reading interests, even – to a limited extent – different parenting styles. But as soon as those differences roll into religious belief or what we think our priorities should be as a society, the differences are no longer respected. The word “idiot” is thrown about all over the internet to describe the other side. No one is actually listening. Everyone is just shouting.

Which brings me to the other problem I have with these lists. People actually think they settle the issue. People think using them wins the argument. It’s just like the arguments in my head. They’ve started from their own point of view, built their argument using their own assumptions and values, maybe even shown it to a like-minded friend, and declared it the perfect assault on the wayward, misguided, idiotic other.

It’s like all the times I’ve heard Christians justify their position to an atheist (or any other non-Christian) with “The Bible says…”. Guess what? They actually don’t care what the Bible says. It holds no weight for them. You are going to have to make your case differently if you want to win them over.

But sometimes I wonder if these lists are really about winning people over. I don’t think they are actually about changing anyone’s mind at all. That would take time, patience, understanding, give-and-take, a willingness to listen, compassion, and the ability to consider the possibility that oneself is the one actually wrong. How many people are up for that?

No, these lists are about making other like-minded people feel good about themselves. To solidify their notion that they are right and the others are fools for not seeing it. To rally the troops. To win – if only in their heads. And I should know. I’m an expert at winning there.

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Seeking Wisdom

What happens when one control freak delegates a task to another control freak and then takes it back? Well, for the second control freak, the results are not pretty. She’s highly likely to have her feelings hurt and be extremely angry. She’s liable to cry and rant to her spouse about the problems of being micromanaged, of not being allowed to do the task, of how she could have done the job and done it well. No, not just well, better than it’s ever been done before. She wants to call the first control freak and tell her about the terrible thing she has done. She wants to make the first control freak feel badly for what she’s done to the second one.

But if she has a modicum of wisdom buried deep down in her brain, she’ll recognize her response is not rational. She’ll carefully consider her husband’s question, “What do you want?”

If you call her, what result do you hope to achieve? What do you want? And are you prepared for the unintended consequences? Because they are always there. There will be unintended consequences to the conversation. Are you ready for them? Can you accept them?

This was my situation this morning. I had been given a task for a group I am involved in at church. As I tried to gather the information I needed to do the task, the leader of the group kept interfering, telling me it should – no, not should, would be done this other way. She asked for intermediate information and then dismissed me, saying she would explain when she saw me, but she was going to go this other route. I never got a chance to put together my brilliant plan. I was devastated.

What do I want?

I want to build the plan. I want to solve the puzzle. I am a problem solver, an optimizer, an engineer. I am logical and organized. She is frazzled right now. I know I can do this better than she can. I know it.

Realization #1

As I ranted to my husband, he commented, “You’ve been here before. In fact, I’m convinced that if you didn’t have me in your life, you’d be just like her in 30 years.”

He’s right. Why am I so upset? Because she wouldn’t give me the control. She offered it but then took it back. And. I. Want. The. Control.

Ok, so part of my problem is that I’m dealing with an older version of myself. A version that never had the moderating effects of a spouse and children. So what now? I still want to confront her. I want her to know she hurt me. I want her to know how her behavior stifles the willingness of the people around her to volunteer. To give her the help she needs.

She did it to my husband too. When he came back with the rough draft of his assigned task, she brushed him off and said she’d decided to go this other route and had already drawn it up. My husband, being who he is, was hurt for a few minutes but then embraced the freedom of no longer having the responsibility and the even greater freedom of knowing that he wouldn’t be volunteering for anything else in the future. And he was content.

That’s not going to work for me. I can’t let go of the task that I want to do. And I still want to talk to her, even though I suspect that everything I would say would go wrong. Unintended consequences.

So I pondered the situation some more. I became convinced that while I wanted to be blunt with her, I shouldn’t. Any time I have stepped up to be blunt, it has gone poorly. But what about Christian accountability? Don’t I owe it to her as her Sister in Christ to let her know how her behavior affects the people around her? Don’t I owe it to her to help her be a better person? Didn’t I just write about this?

My husband is not enough like me. He gives good advice, most of the time. But sometimes, even when the advice is good, I implement it poorly. I needed another perspective. So I contacted a friend in the same church group. And I hit wisdom gold.

She sat quietly on her end of the phone while I explained and whined and ranted. I poured my heart out about what had happened and how I had reacted and what I wanted and then I asked her opinion and shut up and listened.

Realization #2

Control freak number one is freaking out right now. My friend is also a control freak and she can relate to what number one is going through. She explained to me that number one knows she needs to delegate and she tries but there is this constant swirl of stuff that must be done going on in her head and she just can’t stop it. And she actually can’t delegate it, even though she tries.

My friend talked about how she knows her mother raised children and she knows she is competent and able. Yet when my friend was trying to master the new mother thing a couple of years ago, she was convinced that no one else could change her son’s diaper as well as she could, even when she needed the break.

Realization #3

When my friend was in that mode of trying to keep all the balls in the air all by herself, she went with speed, not diplomacy, in her interactions with those dear loved ones trying to help. That’s why I was hurt. Because number one didn’t (couldn’t?) take the time to let me down gently. She felt an uncontrollable urge to make sure it was done right and there’s simply too much going on in her head to consider how her actions would affect others.

Realization #4

I told my friend that my urge to do the job was so strong that I was tempted to develop the plan anyway and then show it to number one. In her calm patient voice, she responded, “From everything I have heard you say so far, if you did that, and she rejected it, you would be devastated and hurt again.”

She was right. I didn’t want to just do the job. I didn’t want to just solve the puzzle. I wanted to do the job and have it be accepted. Have it be used. I don’t want praise. Praise, in fact, makes me very uncomfortable. But I want to be useful. I want the most efficient process in place. I have to live with it too, after all.

And if I succeed. If I succeed in developing a more efficient plan and then it gets rejected anyway, I will have to follow the other plan with the full knowledge that mine was better. Ok, the full belief. I am wise enough to know my plan might not actually be better. But if I feel it is, the effect is the same.

How much more devastated would I be if I spent my precious time developing the plan and then had it rejected? Wouldn’t it be better to stop now? To set aside my desire to implement the solution? To live with what number one comes up with?

Realization #5

I told my friend that I wanted to ask number one why. Why won’t she let me develop the plan? Why? This has always been the most important question to me. Why? Why do people do what they do? It’s what I’ve always wanted to know. Who, what, where, and when have never been as important to me as why.

My friend then dropped a bombshell that I’m pretty sure I’ll still be processing months from now. She had learned something while working at a psych hospital. You never ask why. Why immediately puts someone on the defensive. Ask them why and they shut down. They have to defend their actions. There are ways to get at why without asking why. “What am I doing that isn’t working for you? How would you like me to proceed?” Questions like that. Questions I’m not very good at.

There’s a feeling I get deep inside when someone tells me something that I had never understood but I now, immediately, know is fundamentally true. I got this feeling several times in the course of this conversation and this was perhaps the biggest.

Number one doesn’t know why. If you ask her if she wants help, she will say she does. She believes she wants help. In fact, she does want help. She just doesn’t know how to let people help. If I ask her why she won’t let me, she’ll think I’m accusing her. She’ll get defensive. And that’s when I realized… that’s exactly what I’d be trying to do with the question. Asking someone why they are doing something or why they are not doing something is an accusation phrased as a question to absolve the accuser of the guilt of making the accusation.

I wanted her to feel bad for not letting me do the task. And asking her why she won’t let me is a way for me to accomplish that. But now that my friend has enlightened me to number one’s state of mind, I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to make her feel bad. I don’t want to contribute to the chaos and stress.

But I still want her to know she hurt me. I still want her to have the opportunity to learn from the situation. To be better. And I told my friend that.

Realization #6

“Then tell her. But do it after the event. Do it once it’s all over and the stress is passed.”

Oh, man. I’m a gotta-do-it-now kind of person. Shoot, I’m writing this blog right now instead of taking care of several other more important things because I feel I’ve just got to get it off my chest. She hurt me. And I want to let her know. Now.

But now’s not the time when she can hear me. Now, I would be contributing to the problem, not helping her be better in the future. The “you hurt me” talk needs to wait.

So now I need to decide what to do. Do I call her? If I do, what do I say? What do I want? If I can’t have what I want, can I settle for something else? Can I let it go?

Here’s what I want. I want to develop the plan. But more than that, I want to stay in the group. In my anger and frustration this morning, I contemplated not showing up this afternoon. I even contemplated dropping out completely. Those thoughts stabbed me in the chest. I couldn’t breathe with the thought of not being part of the group. It is seriously a highlight of my crazy, overbooked existence. I can’t imagine life without it. It. Is. That. Important. To. Me.

So compared to that? The plan is not that important. My desire to confront is not that important. I can’t jeopardize my participation in the group. Moreover, I can’t jeopardize my typically positive interaction with number one. To some extent, I have to accept that an idea will not be a good idea until it comes from her. That is who she is. Perhaps she can change, but right now, that’s who she is.

Now I have to consider who I am. Can I keep offering help under number one’s parameters, as my friend suggested? Or do I need to follow my husband’s lead and not volunteer in the future? I’m only human. I have to consider what I can handle. And I don’t think I can handle being rejected again. And now we get to…

Realization #7

I want to grow. I want to be a better person each and every day. To do that, I have to learn; I have to listen; I have to be willing to critique myself as much as I critique others. More. And I have to know the right people to talk to. My husband and my friend made a good team today. They talked me away from the edge. They forced me to look at what I wanted and why I wanted it. They helped me see the other person as a flawed human instead of a frustrating beast.

And I learned, as I have learned before and will probably have to learn many more times in the future, that I can only improve myself. I might be able to help others improve if they are willing. If they approach me, like I approached my friend. But I can’t make someone be better. I can only make me better. I can’t fix number one and her issues. No matter how glaringly obvious they are to me, I can’t fix them. I can only fix me and my issues. And I can only do that when I calm down and listen to the people who know me and who have a healthier perspective on the matter at hand.

It’s a humbling experience and I am not, at my most fundamental, a humble person. But if there is one thing I want to master before I die, it’s this. To humble myself enough to hear the wisdom of others. To seek that wisdom. And to be wise enough myself to see and implement that wisdom.

UPDATE: I wrote this on my lunch break. That afternoon, I went to church. She had modified my spreadsheet, added identifying stickers, and was having everyone record the information I had already recorded instead of verifying what I had recorded. It soon became apparent that she still intended me to develop my plan, but only after she had collected the information the way she wanted to.

When I requested that people record certain information that I needed to know, she glared at me and said no. A friend (different from the phone friend) reminded me to breathe. Just breathe. Breathe. And don’t volunteer again. But right now just breathe.

By the end of the evening, she had explained herself in a satisfactory enough way. I was still frustrated, but not angry. I was still being micromanaged. I had my job but I was not empowered. I still don’t know if I will ever volunteer again. As frustrating as the situation has been, however, I’m glad it happened. I’ve learned a lot. About her. About me. About navigating the sea of humanity. And I’m a better person for it.

Waiting for the Elevator

Jane and I were headed to a metro station that we had not been to before. As we waited across the street, I studied the area. There did not appear to be the usual large multi-escalator entrance. Instead there was a small elevator door tucked away in a bit of an obscured corner. I watched as small crowds waited for the elevator. Around the corner of the elevator, facing the street, was a young heavily tattooed man sweating and lounging on the ground. He was not wearing a shirt and was stretched out on his side with his head propped up on his hand. Above him was a cardboard sign like street beggars might have. Hand lettered on the sign were these words: “A good lay for too little pay.”

Surely that doesn’t mean what it sounds to me like it means. I wondered about the man but he didn’t appear to be bothering the people waiting for the elevator. By the time we crossed the street, however, everyone else had made it down to the station. I pushed the button to request the elevator and waited. A few feet away, there was a painted panda statue. I told Jane to stay put and walked over to take its picture.

SONY DSC

As I walked back, the man looked up at me. “How many pictures of that did you take?” he asked.

“Three,” I replied. “It’s a big enough memory card that I’m not too worried about it.”

He looked at my camera bag and I began to get a bit nervous. I returned to Jane and pushed the button again. Surely there’s too many people about for him to try anything… then again, this corner is a little bit hidden. About then, I saw him stand up. I glanced at Jane and wondered what I should do. He leaned against the corner of the elevator and looked me over.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I find myself attracted to you. Are you attracted to me?”

My mind descended into a cold calm as I considered my options. Ignoring him did not seem like an option. A gentle demur did not seem likely to end the discussion. A polite affirmative would undoubtedly bring on further advances. I felt that a negative response, no matter how politely put, might anger him.

“I’m married,” I said in a firm voice, looking him in the eye, “I don’t make it a habit to discuss who I am or am not attracted to.”

Silence hung between us as he parsed what I said. He finally asked, “Did you just tell me to f**k off?”

The possibility of danger was still present in my mind but I did not feel particularly afraid. “I suppose so,” I answered, “but in a nicer way.”

With that, he returned to his lounging location. I pushed the elevator button a couple more times. Jane turned to me with her eyes as wide as saucers. I began to consider whether we should leave the area. But the nearest metro station was a mile away, uphill. Soon an older gentleman approached. Finally, we had company.

“Does this go to the museum?” he asked.

“This is an elevator to the metro station. Where are you trying to go?”

“Oh. I was told the zoo was this way.”

“Ahh,” I said, “You want to go on up the road. It’s that way.” And with that, our sane, likely safe companion thanked me and headed in the direction I pointed, leaving me alone with my twelve-year-old daughter and a mildly threatening man.

Before I could decide how much attention to pay to my concerns, a large, strong-looking man arrived. What I wanted to say was, “Hello! You look big and strong. Will you be my protector? That guy over there is making me nervous.” Instead, I struck up the conversation with, “I’m starting to doubt the elevator is ever going to come.”

With that, we began to discuss the elevator and the weather and we enjoyed each other’s company until the elevator took us down to the metro and we parted ways. Jane and I sat down on a bench, looked at each other, and laughed.