Why good arguments help but are of no real use
Executive Education / 12 October 2015
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Wolfgang is trainer, coach and published author in the field of communication. He has a PhD in mathematics and teaches his self-developed concept PEC - practical emotional competence throughout Germany and German-speaking countries. He provides seminars at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management since 2010 in English and German. Prior to his trainer career he worked as a manager in sales and service for international renowned companies in Germany.

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Arguments and espresso

Good arguments and Italian espresso have something in common: espresso made from fine coffee beans and oxygen-rich water is flowing out aromatically from an elegant espresso machine. The aroma provides a thrill no one can resist. No one? What if someone doesn’t like espresso and covers the cup with his hand? Or even withdraws his cup? If you push the button, hot espresso either hurts or the good stuff is running into the drip-tray.
You think this doesn’t happen amongst reasonable human beings? Who believes that people react wisely when it comes to a reasonable discussion? Let’s have a closer look to „the journey of an argument“ from ear to brain.
Any outside information forms a first picture in the limbic system and the check-point amygdala produces a first emotional impression: Dangerous or harmless? Interesting or boring? The amygdala works like a switch, switching on subconscious programs and resulting behavior pattern.

Autopilot and pilot

This automatism in the brain – our autopilot – works about 150,000 times faster than the conscious mind – our pilot. The autopilot transforms any environmental information in about 0.1 to 1 milliseconds into emotional reactions. However, the conscious evaluation of the pilot needs between 15 seconds and 2.5 minutes. Thus the pilot has only the opportunity to intervene if the first emotional stimulus has not already caused action. For instance if we couldn’t react immediately because we couldn’t  reach someone by phone. Or maybe, because the amygdala didn’t give a recognition value and therefore no emotional reaction. In both situations the pilot takes over and we start to reflect the situation. Below we will see how we can benefit from this effect.
Due to its extreme speed advantage our autopilot is statistically responsible to 90-95% of decisions and actions. Thus, only 5-10% of our behavior is „reasonable“ – caused by our pilot. This may sound alarming, but without the autopilot (habits, routines, prejudices and feelings) we couldn’t cope with the increasing demands of our civilization. Our effectiveness is based on a well-functioning autopilot.

Strengths and weaknesses

But in this strength there is is also a weakness. Our autopilot is programmed to immediate reaction, to quick fixes. Accompanied by the latent danger of acting either too aggressively, too carefully or too careless. The only counterbalance is the pilot – our program for checking and validating. But the idea is not to think more, to act more in the pilot. The solution is to activate the pilot when a situation is sensed as critical – or when we feel euphoric. The precious time of reflected thinking should be wisely invested. But for that we need new habits.

Good intentions are not enough, they fail due to the construction of the control center amygdala. The very impression of a difficult conversation is interpreted as a danger signal and leads to the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Thus our body is put on alert, and we are ready to fight or flee – an automatism of the limbic system we can’t prevent.

Although we have learned to act only figuratively, verbally, usually we didn’t learn to think before we say or do anything. Moreover, our amygdala provokes us argue the more intense, the more we miss consent. With the result that the amygdala of the interlocutor becomes even more alarmed – causing a stronger rejection.

Winning Time

This vicious circle can only be broken through a purposeful “reprogramming ” of our autopilot. By special training we can learn to restrain both verbally attacking or apologizing. Instead we learn how to win the time our pilot needs to „turn on“.

The first and easiest step are neutral comments such as “aha” or “okay” combined by breaks of 3-4 seconds before and after. A “this is an important issue” or “that’s a good point” brings time as well as an honest “that surprises me“. The time gained brings us the opportunity to ask simple open questions, useful in almost any context, as “what does that mean exactly?”, “what do you expect from me now?” or “what do you suggest ?“. An answer to those questions requires thinking and brings more valuable time to get your conscious picture of the situation.

The program „play for time and ask brain-friendly“ activates the pilots both of ourself and our counterpart. Thinking eclipses the power of the autopilot. Thus,  from pilot to pilot we are open for arguments. In this context a question is brain-friendly if its limbic image neither provokes nor disturbs the control center amygdala. Then the autopilot has no automatic response – and the pilot of your counterpart takes over.

If you want to train how to communicate beyond exchanging arguments or information, you may attend this seminar: “situational communicate – effectively negotiate – convince individually:“