Sure, we need to talk – but more importantly – we need to argue

Talking is a crucially important life strategy. People who are bullied to shut their mouths early on in life pay a huge price for being silenced. This is even though quiet people are often not aware of the cost; instead frequently thinking of themselves as the strong-silent-type, or being proud of their quiet stubbornness, or seeing themselves as easy-going, laid back, not bothered by anything – so no need to engage, step up and participate in conversations. As time passes, and verbal skills fall further and further behind other peoples’ verbal skills, then non-talkers often give up altogether on any real participation in life – it is easier to just withdraw into their own heads. Leave others to do the talking.

Yet, talking helps us work out what we really think about an issue, it helps us work out solutions to problems, and it helps us work out who we are and what we stand for. We can sometimes think about a problem in our own heads for years without making any real progress on a solution. Whereas, every time we talk through a problem, we get distance from our ideas by projecting the words outside of ourselves, and we can readily work out much more ‘objective’ solutions.

Similarly, when we express a view out aloud we are differentiating ourselves from a different view that is getting expressed by another person. This gives us information about how we are different from others and what is unique and strongly committed to, within ourselves. We also work out the ways in which we are similar to others and then how we might cooperate with them. When we realise through talking that we are either different or similar then that, in itself, prompts further analysis about why that might be the case. All of this adds up to a stronger sense of self.

Also, every time we open our mouths to talk we achieve enough distance from the words we are putting out there that we can critique our own words. It could be anything, but for example, you might start off saying ‘I hate zoos because animals ought to be free in the wild’. But as you say the words you might realise that actually it is not that you hate zoos per se but rather you would prefer that species’ were not driven out of their habitat by ever-encroaching human colonisation. Instead you realise that although you might prefer zoos did not have to exist, you see that zoos are necessary to ensure the genetic survival of many species until we can give those species back their habitat. This is how we build precision in our thinking and how we become more and more articulate over time. As soon as we talk we are inclined to refine our views. Each time we talk and get distance from our words (as opposed to thinking inside our own heads) we can gain more and more of this precision as we almost reflexively critique our own words.

Others who are hearing our words, also critique them and force us to tighten our thinking and get more precise in exactly what our view is. Over time, talking helps to build a clear sense of self (similarities with others, differences from others, clarity in our views, clarity in our goals, clarity in our skills, and progression in our own thinking as we refine all of these aspects due to further critique).

It is incredibly difficult though, to get people to talk when they have not been verbal for their whole lives. Even if they start to talk their content seems infantile. For example, if a person learned to stop talking at nine years of age, and that person decided to start talking again at 30 years of age – the conversation is more like the nine year old child – well behind more verbal peers. At least, that had been my experience until I learnt a very important lesson from one of the people I see in my clinic.

I saw a woman in my private practice many years ago for anxiety. She was a complete non-talker. Sessions were painful – she could barely string a sentence together – it was like extracting blood from a stone to get her to talk. She had been like this for pretty much her whole life. But she could take instruction and act on it very well. So, in our therapy sessions I behaved like a teacher and taught her step by step how to get over her anxiety. She took my instructions, applied them and recovered and I didn’t see her again for many years.

Then a few years ago she came back to see me because her marriage was in crisis, her and her husband were about to split up – she told me that they basically hated each other’s guts and they were at the end of the road.

At the time, I remember thinking to myself: OMG!! – how is she ever going to resolve issues with her husband when she cannot talk. Resolving issues requires talking at a highly specific level to enable the thrashing out and articulation of complex ideas and concepts until eventual resolution is achieved. Since she had been so non-verbal she did not have any grip inside her own head about many of the complex concepts relating to her marriage breakdown, because they had not yet been expressed on the outside, through speech. In other words, lack of speech had led to a lack of conceptual development in her thinking processes. I must admit that I held out very little hope. I knew from past experience with other people I had seen in my work, that encouraging people to talk more in conversation was an excruciatingly slow process that took years and still the person lagged behind their other more-verbal cohorts. In my experience people just could not catch up from so far behind. But I was wrong.

I could tell she had no time to spare, her marriage was about to crash. We didn’t have the time to gently teach her to vocalise more. So, I asked her to do some incredibly difficult homework because I knew her to be very good at implementing instructions. I asked her to sit on the couch with her husband at least three times a week for a couple of hours minimum, and argue out every issue they differed on, one by one. She was not allowed to move from that couch until she had argued for at least a couple of hours.

I heard nothing more until a few months ago when she booked in to see me again. Of course, I assumed the marriage had ended and we would be picking up the pieces. To my delight, it turned out she was seeing me for a completely unrelated issue to do with her child. What truly amazed me though, was the complete change in her presentation. She was as articulate, conceptually developed, and willing to converse as some of the most verbally-competent people I have ever met. She was warmer, happier, more assertive, and, most importantly, she had gone from being very passive in her own life to being a highly proactive agent in the driver’s seat of her own life. It was a complete turn-around.

Indeed she chatted unselfconsciously throughout the entire session as though she had been doing it her entire life. I was absolutely shocked – almost on the floor – I had never before seen that degree of change in such a short period in verbal fluency and conceptual development in an adult. Of course, I asked her what she had done and, it turned out she had done her homework – exactly as specified. She learnt to ARGUE. To my amazement, in learning to argue she found a voice that enabled her to become an advocate for her own life. The more she argued, the more she differentiated herself and became her own person. She reported that her marriage was now ‘fantastic’ and her husband and her were back madly in love with each other again, having resolved many of their differences.

What I learnt for my future work was this: People need to learn the skill of argument – not just the skill of talking. Where people are only encouraged to talk it is much less effective because it is too slow and it takes years for people to get anywhere because in general conversation they just continue to keep it safe and fail to contribute anything even slightly controversial. Meanwhile, more verbally-articulate people will intervene much more actively in the conversation and steer it to where they want it to go. The inexperienced talker will simply be over-ridden – leading to a drop in self-confidence and a reinforcement not to bother speaking again in future.

It appears to be the willingness to step up and take the risk of coming openly into conflict with others that seems to make the difference.

Openly arguing out areas of conflict teaches so many crucial life skills about self-advocacy, self-differentiation, self-confidence, independence, similarity, cooperation, objectivity, self-analysis, thinking on your feet, logical analysis, precision thinking, complex conceptual development, and inner toughness. Just to name the obvious ones.

When people learn to argue vigorously they learn that they can take the tough ‘hits on the chin’ in an argument and still keep standing. What an important lesson in life! They learn they are strong enough not to be condescended to when people stop arguing with one hand behind their back and instead take them on head to head – as an equal. This somehow teaches people that they can dig deep and come up fighting on their own behalf which fast-tracks them towards quicker and more conceptual thinking since they have to come up with arguments on the spot. Arguing seems to instil lots of confidence in people about both verbal and logical skills but most importantly about self-resilience. Coming openly into conflict helps you learn to stop caring so much about what other people think of you, and consequently stops you chasing approval from others so much. It follows that you can then develop more internal focus on your own goals in life.

BUT !!! How to argue will be what I talk about next time – because it is not just any old style of argument – it is assertive (not aggressive) argument that is required here.