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Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Value of Arguments, and Arguments of Value

Jenny and I argue. We actually argue a lot more than I have argued with other girlfriends (with one exception, see the sidebar “FLASHBACK: Repelling Myself” in this post). This is a direct side effect of our crazy experiment with truth, honesty and explicit contradictions.

And we value our arguments. One might ask: Why?

It is a strange thing. It is directly contradictory to the advice we often hear from others. But argument is part of creating adaptive chaos and never taking the other for granted. Certes we have both met other people with whom life would be more, well, comfortable or easy. But we are two people who really enjoy work and challenges, and have a long history of picking the hardest thing to do rather than the easiest, just for the hell of it. I fire people for not arguing with me. The executives in my companies are expected to argue. But respectfully.

And that’s a big difference. These aren’t no-holds-barred I’ll-bury-you-and-spit-on-your-grave arguments. Passion is ok, but the framework is oriented toward continuous improvement and problem solving. It’s all part of commitment. So underlying our argument we can see the other person’s commitment.

Also, as I wrote in my Nightmare Scenarios, argument plays proxy for “crying” — an annoying early warning system to protect the health of the third, abstract and most important member of our asset, the relationship itself.

To preserve the value of argument, it is important to confine arguments to certain domains. Constructive arguments are good. In our view several types of arguments become constructive that might otherwise seem selfish. Advancing feelings and opinions within our framework, for example, is very constructive. It’s amazing how a small shift in your framework can make the exact same words feel different.

One mental model of argument topics is that topics should all have values, and by that I mean be representable in numbers. Yes, it sounds awful, but when you can develop a metric for the issue at hand, you have done most of the work in making it a constructive argument. It sounds strange, and it is not easy to do at first, but eventually it becomes easy, and it really makes a huge difference.

Does it sound too mathematical and emotionless? Then your imagination has failed you. Listen to one of our arguments and you would never think it lacks passion, emotion, and drive. But importantly there is a blueprint for construction, which means that during the sulk stage a person is far more likely to come back with some positive suggestions. And such suggestions are easier on the pride than, “I was wrong,” or even, “I love you.” They show a commitment to the relationship, even if it isn’t too each other. And soon the rest follows. It really works.

At least for us.

At least so far!

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