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MCLEOD: Why people become extremists during arguments

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

It starts out calm. You’re having an intelligent debate with a colleague. Then they say something that pushes your buttons and before you know it, the words are flying and logic is out the window.

Reasoned debate is gone, now it’s a “moral” argument. Complexity and nuance are lost as both sides hunker down on a narrow point of view.

Is it because they’ve lost their minds?

Yes. The big smart part of it anyway.

When you’re angry, the logical part of your brain, your neo-cortex, gets hijacked by your smaller-minded reptilian brain. In the heat of emotion, the reptilian brain — often called the lizard brain — forms walls around your thinking and causes you to focus in laser like on a single issue.

For example, I was running a client executive leadership meeting when a long simmering debate erupted between marketing and finance. The VP of Marketing said (shouted) to the VP of Finance. “You’re like the VP of NO. All you want to do is limit spending. You don’t even care about the future of this company.”

After the VP of Marketing calmed down, I asked him privately, “Would you really want to work for a company that didn’t have tight financial controls?”

The truth is he didn’t disagree with all the financial limits. But anger prompts people to take extremist positions. The lizard brain discounts everything about the other side, rather than just the elements they actually disagree with.

It’s not logical; it’s emotional. Unfortunately extremist all or nothing positions keep you from actually accomplishing anything.

Case in point: Congress. Where some members seem to be trying to convince themselves, and us, that ALL taxes are absolutely evil.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but taxes kind of pay your salary Mr. Congressman. If we didn’t have taxes, you wouldn’t have a job. We also wouldn’t have a military.

Let’s be honest about this people. The real argument isn’t about whether or not we should have taxes. It’s about the amount and use of taxes. Suggesting that ALL tax is bad is as reactive as my VP of Marketing client claiming ALL financial controls are bad.

The administrator of “Taxes Are Patriotic,” a Facebook site, writes: “I know, I know, nobody loves paying taxes, but I’m tired (and I mean exhausted) of the paradigm that all taxation is a monolithic evil and serves merely to fund the ever-encroaching monster that is the local, state, and federal government. I want a place to celebrate what taxes do for this country that I love.”

To approach this as an all or nothing argument dumbs down the conversation. It ignites the lizard brain and prevents intelligent problem-solving.

My client solved their turf war when the VPs of Marketing and Finance sat in a room with me facilitating a line-by-line strategy and budget session.

It took hard work, discipline, intelligence, sacrifice and collaboration from all parties involved. And it worked.

They now have a plan they agree on and they gained more respect for each other in the process.

They did it because they realized the future of their company was at stake.

They also did it because the CEO, the person who issues their paychecks, told them, “If you two can’t work this out, I’ll find somebody who will.”

He wasn’t willing to pay for extremist lizard-brained arguments.

Neither should we.

Business strategist Lisa Earle McLeod specializes in sales force and leadership development. She is author of “The Triangle of Truth,” a Washington Post Top 5 Business Book. Visit her website at www.TriangleofTruth.com.