“Let me tell you what REALLY happened”: Why most arguments fail, and the role our brains play.
A Guide to why most arguments never work and how to do it differently by Connor McClenahan
“No, that’s not what I said. Let me tell you what really happened.”
Ever had an argument like this? Sally tells Jimmy what he did wrong, and Jimmy tells Sally what really happened, then Sally tells Jimmy why that isn’t true. These what-really-happened talks almost always end bitterly. We feel frustrated, isolated, defeated. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth to get the other person to see what they did to hurt us.
Why is this? To see what is “really happening” in these conversations, let’s look under the hood at what is going on in our brains.
Our brains are wired to make sense of our world. Not unlike building with Legos, we take in “bricks” of information and build our reality. Each piece of information, gathered continuously from each of our senses by our periphery nervous system, is constructed into a larger structure of reality in our left-lateral-prefrontal lobes. This part of our brain is the part that narrates what’s happening in a given situation. The trick is, each of us has been taught to build our reality in a certain way.
This is the source of the vast majority of our conflict.
In any situation, two people may be given the same “bricks”, but construct entirely different structures of reality. To one person, a conversation was honest, warm, and straightforward; to another it was laced with passive-aggression. One person takes the bricks and makes a house, the other makes a pirate ship.
And this is normal.
There is no way to not do this. There is no way to directly observe our “reality” without somehow constructing it. We do this continually… all the time. We are always constructing, rather than observing, our reality. Most of the time, we are completely unaware that the reality we experience is something we create.
We’d like to think this isn’t the case. When we have the what-really-happened talks, we mistake our subjective experience of the world for objective reality. We forget that we are limited humans who can only see the world from our small lens. But there’s also some intent behind our forgetting. Forgetting allows us to mask our subjective experience as reality so others will hear it. It’s easier to say, “this is what really happened” than “this is the story I made about what happened” (thank you Brené Brown). If we admit the latter, others might dismiss or ignore our experience, and that is a terrible place to be.
So what can we do?
The only way out of our what-really-happened talks is intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity is the relational posture where two or more people are mutually understanding each other’s subjective experience. This is often the place we experience when an argument is resolved well. It’s a place of connection and empathy. In fact, it’s only through the recognition that we are constructing our own realities that we are able to truly connect. When we do, we find precious moments of meaning with each other.
Start by noticing the times you have what-really-happened talks. Talk with your friend or partner about these times, and learn to translate these times as the times you are afraid to share your own experience. Sharing your experience in a conversation might start with simply sharing that you are afraid to share your subjectivity. This might sound something like:
“Right now I’m wanting to blame you because I’m afraid if I tell you that I’m hurt and feel unvalued you couldn’t hear it.”
Another great starter for sharing your subjectivity is a phrase I’ve heard used by author Brené Brown:
“The story I just told myself about what just happened is…”
As you take a risk at sharing your subjectivity, I hope you find deeper presence, connection, and wholeness with those closest to you.