A few weeks ago, I was in a minor argument with a friend of mine. I, of course, was trying to get her to “see the light” by logically and systematically presenting evidence as to why she should take my advice. Despite what I thought were very convincing arguments, she remained unswayed and unconvinced. I became annoyed by this and think I even said to her, “Jeez, you are being so stubborn!”
Now, we’ve all had experiences like this, right? Sometimes we are on the other end in which someone is trying to convince us that we are wrong. One thing that takes places during such times is called “psychological reactance.” It is a term coined from the field of social psychology. It occurs when Person A is trying to limit Person B’s freedom in some way (e.g., Person A tells Person B she is wrong or must take a particular action). Then Person B reacts in a way, usually emotionally-driven, to reinstate his/her freedom. In the case of an argument, Person B’s original views are likely to grow in opposition to Person A’s arguments rather than become weaker or switching sides altogether. It reminds me of an old saying, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
You can see this play out politics quite a bit. In a debate, how often do you see a candidate switch his/her position to that of their opposition? Think of all of the arguments that you’ve been in – how often do you completely switch to the other person’s point of view? Do you ever find yourself arguing even more vigorously for your original point of view? This is called polarization – how arguments can push people’s positions further away from each other.
So, we must be wary when we get into arguments – we often have the exact opposite of our intended effect. Moreover, arguments can cause rifts in relationships. Relationships are key to our own happiness (and to that of others). Thus, in trying to be right were are often not being effective. Since our relationships our inextricably linked to our own happiness, we can really shoot ourselves in the foot by trying to “win” an argument.
But something else struck me in the argument that occurred with my friend. I started viewing her as being stubborn. Then I suddenly realized something – stubborn requires two to tango. She cannot be stubborn without me also being stubborn. Stubborn, by definition, requires two forces in opposition (or perhaps one irresistible force and one immovable object!). Instead of asking why my friend was being so stubborn, it dawned on me what I should be asking instead is: Why am I being so stubborn?
I’ve posted on this topic in previous blogs – we can’t control other people, but only our own behavior (and that can be quite a challenge anyway!). Trying to control others can often result in psychological reactance, polarization, and damaged relationships. When we start viewing others as stubborn for not yielding to us in some way (e.g., changing their behavior, their point of view), we should instead turn the spotlight on ourselves and ask ourselves why we are being stubborn.
There is a line from an old U2 song in which Bono sang, “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” I always liked that line. Now I have a new way in which to apply it so I can liberate myself from my own hard-headedness. Perhaps the next time you catch yourself in an argument and viewing someone as stubborn, you can turn the spotlight around. Sometimes the best way to “win” a tug-of-war is to not pick up the rope in the first place. It’s a choice we all have if we just take a moment to realize it.