The Nature of Arguments
An argument is a verbal interaction that operates on two levels:
- CONSCIOUS (overt / explicit)
- UNCONSCIOUS (covert / implicit)
The conscious level is what the argument is seemingly about — superficially, but not really.
The unconscious level is what the argument is really about, without either person making it explicit, often because they are unaware of it.
What is explicitly said on the surface level of an argument is not where either individual is coming from. Rather, it represents how each individual wants to be perceived by the other, and — more importantly — wants the other to perceive themselves.
The former, “How I want you to perceive me,” serves the latter, “How I want you to perceive yourself.” For example,
“I want you to see that I am an innocent victim, so that you will then understand that you are acting totally unfairly, and thus you will have no option but to change your behaviour.”
This surface level is motivated by each individual’s own subconscious or semi-conscious agenda, namely the hope of getting the other to change their ways. There is usually a lot of emotional charge powering this agenda.
However, each individual is either completely or partially unaware of what they are doing and why; hence, they act as though what they are expressing at the surface level is just “plain truth”.
The more convincing they can make themselves sound in this performance, the more likely it is (or so they believe) that the other will be persuaded by it. In other words, the hope is that the other person will take in what is explicitly said on the surface as “truth,” and thus change their ways.
This level could also be described as an interaction between personas, a persona being an artificial display of oneself that masks one’s hidden feelings. These are feelings of which one is barely aware, and which — as yet — one is unwilling to face because there is great fear, tenderness and vulnerability surrounding them. It naturally feels safer not to go near these particular feelings (why touch something knowing that it will hurt?).
The hidden agenda or covert strategy, then, is to get those who trigger such feelings (or “press those buttons”) to stop doing so.
This is the whole purpose of the argument.
As soon as both individuals consciously and explicitly recognise that this is what they are actually doing when they argue, the argument can be changed instead into a growthful conversation. That is, a joint discussion with the shared goal of uncovering what each individual actually fears, and how those fears get triggered in their day-to-day lives with the other person.
The aim of such a conversation is for each individual to help one another to address, identify and describe their own fears and how they get subconsciously triggered. In doing so, each one will also come to appreciate the other’s fears, and thus achieve compassion as well as understanding.
The conversation is complete when both parties agree that they have arrived at a clear and true understanding of what the original argument was about, and why it started. There will be no need to continue it because the mechanisms for healing that aspect of the relationship will be clear to both.
Better still, both will be laughing at the unconscious trips they had been laying on each other!