How to Argue Effectively

By Kris Girrell  |  Posted 04-01-2010

How to Argue Effectively

In today's politically correct society, it is not nice to disagree. Differences of opinion may be interpreted as disliking and disrespecting the other--and that is just not okay. 

But when differences are not aired, two very destructive things happen within the company: The unspoken disagreement festers inside as a perceived disrespect anyway, and the company loses out on a powerful creative force.

Fixing the former is no walk in the park--it takes time, patience and an overarching commitment to persevere. Recently I have been working with the CEO and one of the company's two founders, who now is a director of one of the divisions of that company. Once strong allies and friends, they had degenerated into not speaking and relying on long, bulleted emails to each other (despite the fact that they were only a few offices apart). Untangling the plate of spaghetti that exists when things have gone wrong is a real art form, and it takes time, money and a great deal of effort to get there.

However, mediation is not the solution--it is far better never to get to that point. Let's consider instead the hidden treasures that lie beneath all those arguments, curses and caustic epithets. People disagree, period. We have to, simply because we are not the same. Though I have had countless engineers and scientists assure me that "all scientists speak the same language," I have never seen it. In fact, my experience is just the opposite: two engineers, two financial analysts, two (you fill in the blank) looking at the same spreadsheet will invariably come to different conclusions and will notice different things within the data array--just like two people standing on the street corner witnessing the same car crash will file two completely different reports. Not only do and will people disagree, it is natural that they disagree.

Disagreements, however, do not lie within the "facts" but rather within the meaning-making structure of the individuals' minds and the very simple fact that any two people are not the same and do not understand the world in the same way. We operate under the delusion that our eyes do the seeing and that our ears do the hearing, when in actuality those wonderful apparatus are merely receptors that send data to our brains, where the data is compared with other stored images and memories for meaning making. That internal, mental file cabinet of stored data will never be identical from one person to the next, even if they were identical twins. 

Thus the more accurate "truth" might be that none of us will ever really know objective reality--we will only know our experience of that reality and the meaning our "context" places on that experience. So we are bound to disagree, perhaps not so much on the little things but certainly on the big, important things like running a company and setting future strategy!

So what can be done and how do we constructively deal with these charged touch points? That ensuing debate, if engaged effectively, can produce powerful new insights that we could never have seen before. Of course, the caveat around this engagement is that we do it in such a way that it is not a debate about rightness and wrongness. That is where my clients had gone--I'm right and you're wrong.   And both were committed to having the other acquiesce to that fact. So the debate became a series of accusations and assertions about rightness and wrongness ultimately spiraling down a very long and dark tunnel.

If, however, we begin with the assumption of mutual rightness--that you see what you see and I see what I see--and assume that something else might exist in between, then a whole world of possibilities arises. Essentially we give birth to creativity in that space. There is no real creativity in agreeing. There is just the singular idea and a bunch of people shouting, "Hooray, go for it!" But in healthy, robust disagreement, there is newness and discovery. 

We are forced to find a combination strategy that incorporates both positions (and often so much more). It is wonderful, passionate and fruitful. And, yes, it can get testy at times, especially when the proponents are passionately committed to their contentions and their underlying values driving them. Like a good marriage, business partners who wish to be successful step into the argument, embrace the disagreements and work for the creative solutions in the knowledge that they, their companies and their products will all be better for it.

3 Steps to Dynamic Disagreement

In order to foster dynamic disagreements and tap into the well of creativity they open up, there are a few guidelines.

1. Don't rush to solutions. In the fast-paced world of get-it-done-yesterday we often want the disagreement to be out of the way so we can move on. This can be exacerbated by our discomfort with disagreements and tension. Both can have us miss the valuable sub-themes and resources behind the opposing camps' arguments that, themselves, may become part of the resolution. Take the time to engage in disagreement by hearing both sides, deciding on a process and sticking with it until resolution.

2. Be aware that the trickle-down effect drowns the fire of opposition. If there is little or no disagreement and debate in your team, you might inspect how you, the leader, are being. How often do people put forth ideas only to have you take the course you had decided on long before? Do you feel a need to add to or modify the team's suggestions? Both will squash healthy conflict.

3. Always keep the goal in mind. One client, the CEO of a cancer-detection medical device company, who encouraged and even fostered regular debate, would intervene in those arguments he felt were going amok or wherein the parties were more invested in being right than in getting the best solution.  His show-stopping line was simply, "Is this curing cancer?" It was the one value they all--researchers, physicists and salespeople--agreed they were passionate about. Having a clear mission can pull even the most divergent parties forward into a new solution.

Successful partnerships are not happily-ever-after fairy tales, nor are they dominant/submissive pairings of unequal participants. Truly successful relationships recognize their differences and are committed to working through those differences in the knowledge that each resolution makes them stronger and more resilient. If and when disagreements degenerate into power struggles or dominant/submissive hierarchies, no one wins. But embracing the differences, actually seeking out contrarians among the rank and file of employees and managers, can only make the company stronger and more resilient.

My clients have come to an agreement that they want to stay together, and that doing so will mean other, bigger disagreements. But they are now looking forward (somewhat) to those passionate disputes as the stuff of success. Dynamic disagreements are like the primordial stew of boiling amino acids from which life first emerged. 

Good organizations become great when they seek out and rely on a "team of rivals." So let's not be so hasty to rush toward agreements. Take time to engage in the richer dynamic of powerful disagreements.

Kris Girrell is a senior partner with Camden Consulting Group.

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