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Saturday, August 10, 2013

How to Argue

You never know whether your opinion is right until you get into an argument about it. And, if you don’t argue properly, you may never know.

People talk a lot of foolishness about arguing. Some say it’s a bad thing and should be avoided. They believe it accomplishes nothing except to hurt people, damage relationships and harden attitudes. Others say it’s a lost art because of “political correctness.” They are convinced that people tiptoe around each other, letting good ideas as well as error and misinformation slide by because they don’t want conflict.

So here’s a question for you: How much progress is possible without disagreement?

Competition is disagreement. Coke vs. Pepsi. The two flavors have competed for about a century, and their respective proponents have been known to disagree – sometimes vociferously – about their relative merits.

Then there’s Red Sox-Yankees. GOP vs. Dems. Either side of either one can get you an argument any time you’d like, with as much heat as you have the time and patience for. Mighty IBM was founded because Thomas Watson was fired from now-forgotten National Cash Register Co. by John Henry Patterson.

In the broad arenas of life, things are changed by people who don’t want to accept the way other people do things. When the status quo folks don’t like it, they disagree. Argument ensues. Or worse. War is disagreement at a horrifying scale.

I would argue against anti-argument arguments. I am a vigorous supporter of argument, but not because I’m in favor of damage to people and relationships or hardened attitudes or opposition to phony civility.

I would make the argument that argument is essential to healthy growth, and an antidote to decline.

Things don’t stay the same. Some people want things to stay unchanged, anyway, and don’t want to admit change is inevitable – or even that it has occurred or is at that very moment  occurring. Others, on the other hand, just love to toss bombs at the status quo, and they find times of transition a wonderful opportunity to do so.

Then there are those who clearly see what’s coming down the tunnel, and they often do not have an easy life. They want to directly engage the change, even amid turmoil. Their colleagues have been known to resist persistently, and/or devote themselves to misdirecting/subverting the management of the situation.

It is not unusual that confrontations with the avoiders and deniers come first, obscuring the reality and depleting resources necessary for a competent response. So the champion of progress must have superior abilities in change management. The wisdom to know when change is necessary must be twinned with a sure grasp of the persuasive powers essential to move all those resistant and less-perceptive parties toward acceptance and implementation.

It is not unusual for the arc of that persuasive challenge to begin at a point where there already is open and vigorous disagreement. So your effort to lead a transition may have to start with people yelling at each other and at you. This is argument, but it is not good argument.

Argument is the verbal section of the arc of disagreement. It occurs when differences of opinion are traded, usually in speech but sometimes in writing. The written channel, especially email, is rigid and given to misunderstanding and frequent rapid escalation.

Academics sometimes use the word “argument” in a non-conflict context, as when it refers to the way a person constructs an explanation, a proposal or a justification without there necessarily being anyone in opposition.

There is a strong case for disagreement – including real argument – in Bruce Tuckman’s description of how to develop high-performance teams: Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing. It’s all about how people get to know each other, eventually revealing their differences and working through them to work together.

When the group rises to the Performing level, it has succeeded in blending the members’ strengths so effectively that the combination is capable of far more than the simple total of the individual abilities.

In my experience with all kinds of situations, including projects and family life, argument often is a necessary stage in people getting to real understanding of each other, as long as the argument is handled properly.

The process isn’t automatic. It won’t work unless it’s managed – by the participants if they have the skill and experience, or by a trained facilitator.

The goals of the parties are both the cause of a disagreement and the key to a productive outcome. Just as arguing for my way is driven by my commitment to a goal as I understand it, successful agreement on a common goal is what will eventually make productive team collaboration possible.

People don’t stir themselves to disagree unless they consider it important that this thing be done right. Doing it right is their goal, held high enough for them to push back against people who are committed to something else with equal fervor. The disagreement may be about how to achieve the desired outcome (method disagreement) or it may be about just what the outcome is supposed to be (goal disagreement).

Sometimes the antagonists really are struggling over who gets to be boss or enjoy some other favored position (role disagreement). Sometimes they just have a blanket dismissal of the other person, such in gender and racial bias (values disagreement).

In practice, most arguments have an important component called information disagreement. People just don’t have the same information and/or the right information, about the situation, factors surrounding the favored result or about what their opposite number actually is talking about.

Arguments that start at the information level, the most basic one, can easily escalate up the ladder into the method, role, goal or values areas. People can wind up yelling the most ridiculous accusations at each other, inflicting permanent personal scars, as emotions heat up. “Winning” what is now a fight, or punishing the other party, can become the de facto goal.

Why didn't they just ask what the hell the other person was trying to say? And LISTEN?

The uncontrolled shouting match is what people visualize when they talk about avoiding argument. They are right to be negative about such situations, but by no means do arguments inevitably lead there.

In fact, fear of conflict should never be allowed to discourage full and vigorous advocacy for one’s position. A not-inconsequential outcome of engagement can be that you learn you were wrong. Once you have fully described and explained what you’ve talked about, an equally well-prepared person with better information can point out the holes in your argument. Oh, I see now.

When that exchange is conducted with mutual respect, it really is not that difficult to acknowledge your error, thank the person who showed it to you, and change your position – wiser for the process.

Of course, testing your beliefs in such a situation may prove that you’re right, and you are strengthened in your position – whether the other party now agrees with you or not. Sometimes such agreement with that person develops, or is acknowledged, later rather than on the spot. Either way, that is not what matters.

Mature management of disagreement is the Holy Grail of human relationships, including those in the sometimes-charged atmosphere of a project.

The constituent skills of managing disagreement begin with research and consultation so your opinion is based on fact. Do you know what underpins your conclusions, so you know what you're talking about? We all should be doing that before forming opinions on important matters anyway. 

Then there needs to be excellence in persuasive presentation of proposals, both to individuals and to groups of all kinds. Why should they agree, and why should they act as you want them to?

Managing response comes next, going all the way from understanding and satisfying questions through engaging simple disagreement on to capably handling the entire range of active conflict (Consult other posts on this blog).

You don’t have to know how to do any of that if you intend to avoid the possibility of conflict altogether. Of course, if you do that you’ll also avoid progress and success.

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