B r i a n M u e n z e n m e y e r

Arguing with Strawman Considered Harmful

I win every argument I have with other people, and I bet you do too.

I win all the arguments I have with other people. I bet you do too. The problem is—all of these arguments are fictitious—taking place only in my head. They are a product of my insecurities and worries, manifesting perhaps as some sort of fight or flight training. But it never makes me feel better—instead stewing the stressors of conflict unresolved or conversations yet to be had. I've learned to identify this feeling, this feedback loop. I've now seen it mentioned in Max's school, a part of learning called meta-cognition, or simply, "thinking about thinking". I hope to nip these arguments in the bud when they crop up. What I've found is that by short-circuiting the feedback loop and directly communicating with my antagonist, my worst fears are allayed and I find that they are almost always ill-founded, over-blown, or too-hyphenated.

Strawmen don't get a chance to explain themselves. "Gosh, they are stupid, aren't they!?" They represent the most irrational position against my most enlightened opinions. Be it in a relationship, an objective decision at home or work, the political spectrum, or the strangers we encounter throughout our day. Winning disputes with strawmen gives me a momentary high, but it never lasts and only entrenches further into my psyche. It's convenient to expect and prepare for the worst of intents in others—it's a coping mechanism to shield oneself from vulnerability and loss. I've done this time and time again, and still do sometimes. In the very distant past, I would project these arguments onto romantic partners. By the way, I don't do this with Megan, and for that, I assign every measure of our successful partnership. But with others, it was such an exhaustive shower-thought exercise in futility that I now see it as a huge red flag. I didn't really know better back then. My memory better serves more recent examples, like business relationships. "If they only saw it my way!" "Why don't they understand?" "I bet you didn't consider..." "When you said... it implied that ..." It's all bullshit, one-sided lizard-brain Brian. Danger ahead!

Don't get me wrong, this maximalist dueling with my own brain sometimes yields some good outcomes. I often say that I've come this far by worrying about stuff a lot—and have the hairline to show for it—but it's come at the cost of being crabby, distant, or having a "resting Brian face." 😂 One of the best managers I ever had told me to prepare for conversations by thinking about what I wanted to say and what I hoped to communicate. So some prior thought is useful, of that I have no doubt.

But now when I feel the feedback loop spiraling out of control, with no offramp in sight, I try my best to stop. I've had success in being open and honest about these struggles with my quarry too. One recent example had me preface a tough conversation with a superior by saying something along the lines of... "I have been working on my emotional intelligence... and wanted to share with you how I felt when..." Even scheduling the meeting or asking for the chat relieved some of the pressure.

This also signals to the other person that I am seeking help, and am coming at them from a position of vulnerability (As I might get into some other day, I'm REALLY big into reciprocity, and that's perhaps why I have wanted to write about this incongruent, imaginary argumentation for some time). And in this last business-related instance, we laughed about it after aligning on the reality-based facts and decisions the team arrived at. Would it have been more satisfying to vilify this person longer? Perhaps to my lizard-brain. But it's a trap! What a burden I'd be putting on myself, carrying one-sided grievances for who knows how long.