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Friday, September 5, 2014

Argument Builds Relationships

     This guy startled me.
     We had disagreed, and then I described in greater detail what I meant. He listened. Then he said, “You’re right. Now I see your point, and I agree.” I was really nonplussed. That had never happened to me before.
     I came from a large, very verbal family, and one thing we never did was give in on an argument. If the words didn’t work, even in waves of escalated volume and intensity, we tended to get physical. Growing into the larger world, and learning to keep it strictly verbal, I discovered that most people are not accustomed to debate as sport, or even as instructive.

     It seems that folks who are treated bluntly in adversarial conversation tend to take it personally. They don’t necessarily engage in thrust and parry. They may just shut down, turn away, and consign the offender to the bin of permanently disliked people. Not good for arguers who value relationships.
     This took some getting used to. How do you get along with people who take things too seriously? Words come and go. Hey, cuts heal. People matter.  You get to know them by jousting vigorously in conversation, and you learn a lot by declaiming, demanding and mocking, then fielding the incoming return fire. It’s fun and you grow.
     The larger world does not work that way. The general workplace conventions of human discourse, at least in the United States, often obscure and impede the building of relationships.
     It may take a while, perhaps quite a while, to go through stages in getting to know those around you. Or maybe you never really get to know people at all.
     For some, it all is much less of a problem if we’re all eternal strangers – even with our associates. They prefer to have stiff, two-dimensional working arrangements for whatever the period is, then go on separately with their real lives.
     I like to think there’s much more to it, especially when you want to construct the relationships that make significant project accomplishment possible. In real projects, people have to walk a long ways out on bridges to other people. Brisk, brusque business contacts that stop at the outer surface are totally inadequate.
     If the project has any depth at all, you can’t really function without real people honestly holding hands on it in the most meaningful ways. They’re bought in, not just to the project purpose, but to their dependence on one another to pull it off.
    Look around you. How much of this true collective commitment is at work in our world?
     How do you, the project manager, make this happen when you really need it?
     Relationships, that’s how. How do you make real relationships happen? Arguments are an important part in it. But only if you listen as well as emit.
     Bruce Tuckman, in his famous forming-storming-norming-performing formula for the development of really worthwhile collaborative relationships, had it right. You don’t really get to meaningful joint effort until you’ve revealed the truth about yourself to each other, and have dealt successfully with the consequences.
      It’s not comfortable in the process, but it’s eminently satisfying in the outcome.
     The guy who stopped me in my arguing tracks all those years ago believed deeply in his starting position. He stuck to his point, but that didn’t keep him from listening – with his ears and with his mind – when I explained the contrary position.
     He saw debate as a mutually productive exchange, not as verbal combat.
     What’s important to stress here is that conducting healthy discourse does NOT mean pulling your punches. You say what you mean.
     But you also keep your mind open. You’re not looking to win a competition, you’re seeking to shine the light on an idea. Your side of the idea is bright in your mind, but now you have the opportunity to see what the other sides look like – the ones you never were able to see before.

     All you have to do is shut up periodically and listen. With an open mind.
     This mind is open at both ends – you do not surrender your original conviction, but you open your consideration to the logic and factual support of the other position. You withdraw from advocate to judge. Could I be wrong? Hell, yes. It’s happened often enough.
     There are two important benefits from this idea of engaging in open argument.
     For one thing, you learn something. Everybody knows some things you don’t know, and many of those things have value – if not now, at some point in the future. Be attentive. You never know.
     (If you know everything already, forget this – and forget management. Managers never know enough. And the good ones know it.).    
     The most important payoff has little to do with the content of the discussion.
     You have engaged a person in a serious exchange.
     That person had the opportunity to demonstrate worth in a meaningful situation, and someone who mattered to that person (you) listened. Such a moment builds not only the person’s sense of self-worth, but also his/her evaluation of you as someone that individual wants to be around.
     This person is going to be favorably inclined to take seriously what you had to say.

     You respected him/her, and the person is very likely to reciprocate, much as I did with that long-ago guy who unexpectedly agreed with me.
     That’s where relationships come from.
     You may have won a fan. Not a bad start in a relationship.
         How to Argue:
         How to Handle Conflict:


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