Argumentative? Dichotomies in conversations lead to arguments not solutions


Quick summary – Couples and politicians alike commonly experience unnecessary unpleasant emotional reactions and a failure to reach a resolution do to the use of false dichotomies in conversation. Dichotomous thinking is what people commonly refer to as “either or thinking” or “black and white thinking” – basically people oversimplify issues so as to believe that their view point is 100% indisputably right and the other view point is 100% indisputably wrong. Solutions and more agreeable conversations simply necessitate that an adult takes into consideration that almost nothing is “black and white”… most everything is in the “grey area.” This would mean that adults would enter into conversations involving different viewpoints with the understanding that both people are both right and wrong at the same time… If you do not have an ability to do this with certain subjects (religion, politics, a vocational technique etc) then it would be best for you to hold an awareness of your inability to converse on such a subject without promoting an argument. It is hard for me to understand how a politician in a democracy can adequately fulfill their job description if they hold tightly to false dichotomies… in my opinion this is why solutions are becoming less common in our current government – we are unintentionally promoting dichotomous thinkers. This ability to hold security and compassion in the face of coexisting opposites is what has been historically described as Wisdom.

Dichotomous thinking is developmentally appropriate for a teenager.

  • Their brain development generally encourages them to organize the world in opposites.
    • Ex. School is all bad or all good… parents are 100% fair or 100% unfair.


Adults have a brain which is developed enough to understand and accept that the world is far more complicated.

  • They can understand that seemingly opposite characteristic almost always co-exist.
    • Ex. almost everyone is good and bad… every decision will likely have negative and positive consequences…people have attractive and unattractive features… an act of charity can be helpful and hurtful etc.


Dialectic Maturity is the ability for a person to accept the co-existence of what we commonly call opposites.

How do dichotomies foster Arguments?

Quite simply, dichotomous thinking encourages people to believe that they are right… ironically it is in believing that you are right which makes you wrong. You are never right or wrong… everything is infinitely right and wrong at the same time depending on the relative and subjective perceptions of the judger.

  • Arguments typically involve an emotional reaction which could be described as unpleasant or at least counter productive.


  • Arguments are commonly the result of the cognitive distortion (a belief in something which is not true) that you are 100% right or correct.


  • Because you believe that you are right you feel justified in your emotional reaction.


  • As the argument continues people often fall victim to an even deeper dichotomy based cognitive distortion.


Adults will often believe that they as a person are good, intelligent, moral, empathetic etc where as the person with whom they are disagreeing with is bad, stupid, immoral, insensitive etc.

  • This dichotomy encourages people to start defending themselves though they believe that they are still arguing about the topic.
  • The emotional escalation typically reaches a point of explosion as the people in the argument now feel as though they are being attacked for who they are as a person.
  • This happens in politics all the time… the public will rally for or against a political leader with billboards and repetitive slogans that don’t always seem to contain a clearly articulated solution.
  • Why is everyone so emotionally escalated? People are often defending themselves as good intentioned human beings (which in my experience… Humans almost always have good intentions).
    • The opposition is suggesting that they are “bad” and they resent this… so they rally in support of themselves though they believe their emotions are most related to a cause (this is evident in the stats that show that neither the public nor the politicians are generally aware of exactly what solution they are supporting – being against or for something does not necessarily mean that you have a solution or a plan of action).
      • Next time you feel a strong emotion for a politician ask yourself the question, “what exactly is the solution and how will it realistically be implemented?”


How can you reduce arguments and promote solutions and/ or healthy debate?


  • The first step towards a more humble dialectic disposition might be contemplation.
    • Ask yourself this question… name one action that every single person in the world would agree is absolutely positive and has absolutely zero negative consequences in any imaginable instance or setting… Difficult right? 
    • Now lets make it more realistic… name a solution that you very much agree with… now name all the potential benefits of this solution… now humbly name all the potential consequences of this solution
      • Do the benefits out way the consequences in the solution that you agree with? Can you understand why the consequences might out way the benefits for a person with a differing belief system?


  • In determining what is “better” in life are you generally using subjectivity (an opinion –ex. ice-cream is better than frozen yogurt) or objectivity (truth – ex. my brother is eating ice-cream and I am eating frozen yogurt)?



  • Next we can think about the subject from a relational perspective.


    • Ask yourself this question… “In what ways will proving myself right be beneficial to my relationship… In what ways will it be detrimental?
    • Would you rather that your partner was ‘logical’ enough to prove themselves ‘right’ or would you rather that they offered understanding, empathy and compassion to your differing opinion? (This is ironically I dichotomous choice – you could say both in some instances)
    • What do you suppose is more important to your partner?
    • We humans long to be understood… Being understood makes us feel connected, important, nurtured and not alone
    • Are relationships generally more satisfactory when someone is able to prove themselves right? Do you love your partner more for their ability to prove themselves right?


    • Most arguments in adult relationships are over opinions and have no need to be resolved


  • In other words, proving yourself right generally is not particularly beneficial to the person doing the proving.




  • Find a point of agreement or similarity… We humans are strikingly similar in the ways in which we experience emotions. Empathy can be the cure…


  • Our brains come up with different interpretations and suggested actions for our emotions, but the primary emotions tend to be quite similar.


  • People have very different opinion on subjects such as war… what do both sides tend to have in common? What shared emotions are encouraging differing behaviors and beliefs?


  • Your brain may not be able to understand the ‘logic’ behind a differing perspective… but if you try you are very likely to understand the emotions which encouraged the differing perspective.


  • With increased empathy comes an increased tolerance for differing positions…



Debate – having a discourse with emotions in check and set agreed upon rules of engagement with the goal of proving a position more reasonable or more sound than another position.


  • Debate is fun and can be productive…


  • I like to think of debate like a game (baseball, football, soccer etc) … it only works if you can follow the rules.


  • When a person or a player is not able to keep their emotions in check, they can ruin the game and will often be required to stop playing.


  • When a player decides to not follow the rules and regulations of a game they can ruin the game and they will often be required to stop playing.


  • Debates turn into argument when a person stops following the rules and/ or is overly emotionally reactive (being withdrawn or acting emotionally indifferent to the degree that your partner feels a lack of compassion is a more illusive form of being overly emotionally reactive). 



The Political Relevance of Dichotomies and Dialectics



Democracy in ancient Greek and Roman societies was founded on dialectics (which are ironically somewhat the opposite of dichotomies).

When democracy was created the idea was to use dialectics in debate so that seemingly opposite viewpoints would arrive at a more moderate solution that could best serve and represent the public.

  • Our current democracy has lost this foundational variable – we are now encouraged to vote for “my way or the highway” type politicians….
  • The public suffers as our representatives are promoting radically “conservative” or “liberal” agendas instead of promoting reasonable solutions (both parties are always wrong – with integrity and maturity they could accept this notion so as to move towards reasonable solutions).
    • Every political choice will inevitably have positive and negative consequences – this dialectic is desperately needed for a democracy to function.
    • It is not so much that it is wrong to have a strong opinion… instead I am suggesting that it is a useful (has monetary worth) vocational position to have representatives working for solutions to the public’s problems… I do not believe that it is worth any money to have representatives endlessly push subjectivities.
      • I personally do not much care for the opinions of politicians with whom I have no personal relationship.
      • I am very interested in hearing the potential benefits and consequences of their proposed solutions.


I know when I am right I am surely also wrong…

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Talking with Teens– Try using authentic open-minded empathetic curiosity.


Quick Summary: For a teenager, the brain development is at a stage where they are generally dichotomous thinkers (black and white thinking – you are right or you are wrong – no middle ground). The thinking patterns of this developmental stage can make teens difficult to converse with when there is a disagreement. I find four interaction strategies to be of paramount importance in such an instance. I use authenticity, open-mindedness, empathy, and curiosity – With sincerity, I ask clarifying question that have the sole intention of better understanding the teen’s individual opinion and feelings; at the same time I avoid trying to get the teen to arrive at a universal ‘truth’.

To answer the question regarding the elephant in the room the answer is – YES, there are many adults that are still stuck in using primarily dichotomous thinking, the difference is that most adults are at a stage of brain development that would allow them utilize more open-minded thinking patterns.

Part of normal development for humans is to go through different stages of brain development, which are all characterized by fairly universal thinking patterns depending on a person’s age. In the beginning of life we all think that we are quite literally the center of the world – we then become teens and start categorizing the world using dichotomous thinking (I like that person or I don’t like that person) – By the time a human is in their senior years many have reached a point of acceptance with the concept that any instance can be good and bad – its all relative, and interdependent (there is no good without bad – “I am good and bad at the same time”).

The most common dichotomies that I’ve heard expressed (and that I expressed myself in my teenage years – and admittedly after as well:)) are the following: I am either independent or I am not independent (and they generally want to believe that they are independent), If a rule is valid than it should apply to everyone the same (“I should not be in trouble for drinking because you drink too”), I am right or I am wrong, If I am right (about any part of the argument) than you are wrong, and If you misspeak or are incorrect about any part of the argument then you are wrong.

So what do you do when you are in involved in a conflict with a teen (he/she got caught engaging in unsafe behavior – or they disagree with a rule or a task that you assigned to them)?

Try Authentic Open-minded Empathetic Curiosity

Reasons for:

Authentic – This pertains to the empathy and open-mindedness that you will present. You can’t fake it – so choose the time for your interaction wisely – such as when you feel like you are in control of your emotions. Try reminding yourself that your brain functions differently and look at the interaction as a unique chance to better understand the teen’s dichotomous thinking stage that you went through yourself in your teens.

Open-minded – If you approach the interaction with the belief that what the teen has to say is absolutely valid in some way or another then you will encourage the teen to express him/her self with greater depth and with less guarded emotions. Emotions are very important – If a teen believes that you are honestly listening (not being defensive) and that you are not openly threatening their independence – then the positive emotions that they hold for you will have a better opportunity to impact their decisions. (Remember the dichotomous thinking – “if you don’t listen to me – I don’t listen to you.”)

Empathetic – Try walking in their shoes and to honestly try and feel what they are going through. It can be hard being a teen and sometimes, if you listen empathetically, you might see that though their story line is unsafe and somewhat irrational – it does make a bit of sense given the way that they think.

-ex. “mom I had to get in the car with Dave even though he had been drinking cause if I didn’t he would have gone off with some other girl and besides, the police were coming and they always give out tickets to the kids that are left behind.” Now it might not be possible for you to accept that the teen was with a drunk driver, but it is possible for you to feel the teens fear around getting a tickets and to feel the teen’s insecurity about how she relates to the boy in the story.

Often the empathy you give will impact the empathy you will receive – so remaining empathetic increases the likelihood that the teen will feel your feelings concerning the decision that was made.

Curious – Though teens might be dichotomous thinkers they are neither stupid nor are they totally irrational. If you, as the adult, lecture too much they will often turn their focus on finding a fault in your logic (“but what if… no that is not true it was 10:00 and not 10:15 when I got home…”etc). If you approach the interaction with curiosity you will give the teen the opportunity to find the faults in their own logic… In my experience when a teen concludes by his or her self that they were wrong, the lesson is infinitely more valuable then when an adult tells them that they were wrong.


The most important aspect of this intervention: If this method increases the teen’s likelihood of simply talking with you then you have already done excellent work. The more that a teen engages with his/ her family the less likely they are to engage in many unsafe behaviors.

In in addition to these four interaction strategies I use emotional regulation and my understanding of the difference between knowledge and understanding (these methods will be in a future blog).

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.