Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 43;   October 22, 2014:

Meta-Debate at Work

by

Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
The signing of the Paris Peace Accords

The signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, ending the Vietnam War. The talks spanned a period of almost five years. There were serious difficulties from the outset, as the parties could not even agree on the shape of the conference table. It is this episode that gave rise to the phrase: "We're arguing over the shape of the table."

Certainly discussing the shape of the table is an example of meta-debate. But in the case of these peace talks, it might also have served a strategic function for both parties. They were engaged in a war of attrition, and probably each hoped to wear down the other. Meta-debates often serve strategic functions.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

At work, many discussions — especially discussions in meetings — are actually informal debates. They're informal because they lack specified structure. We exchange views, usually seeking resolutions that satisfy everyone. There are rules governing the exchange, but they're rarely explicit, and even when they are explicit, we usually regard them as common sense and social custom.

Sometimes a participant comments about the propriety of a contribution. For example, Malcolm might object to Teresa's assertion by saying, "How does that square with what you said about this last month?" Malcolm is demanding that Teresa's current position be consistent with a prior position. In his attempt to prevail in the current informal debate, Malcolm is invoking a previously unstated "rule" regarding positional consistency. He has entered the meta-debate: the debate about the rules of debate.

Certainly it's reasonable to wonder about positional inconsistencies. Inquiring about them must be permissible if we want to achieve clarity and enhance understanding. However, we often make such inquiries not in pursuit of understanding, but in pursuit of debate victories — to "score points." It's the intention to score points that distinguishes honest inquiry from meta-debate.

Other patterns of meta-debate include calling out one's debate partner for these unfair tactics:

  • Using rhetorical fallacies
  • Using abusive, insulting, or inappropriate language
  • Characterizing or labeling a debate partner, instead of directly addressing the issue
  • Raising issues that defocus the discussion
  • Raising one's voice
  • Using intimidation tactics
  • Citing powerful people as "proof" of an assertion's validity

Such tactics are often destructive, whether employed intentionally, or out of ignorance or negligence. But calling out one's debate partners for using these tactics is probably counterproductive. Calling out one's debate partners
for using these tactics is
probably counterproductive
To anyone who used these tactics out of ignorance or negligence, identifying the tactic can feel like an accusation or personal criticism. Some might respond defensively. The person who uses these tactics intentionally is even more likely to respond defensively.

Prevention, in the form of general education about informal debate, is usually more constructive. Include guidelines for fair debate in communications training, or in a team's behavioral norms. Or recruit a neutral facilitator who knows how to keep a group discussion respectful.

But what if someone uses unfair tactics? If you're a bystander or facilitator — not directly involved in the exchange — you're in the best position to act. For bystanders or facilitators, identifying unfair tactics isn't really meta-debate, because they aren't participating. They can intervene, saying that they believe that someone has used unfair tactics, and describing what they saw or heard. They can ask that the parties to agree to debate fairly, to ensure that they arrive at a conclusion that has a sound foundation. If you're directly engaged in the debate yourself, ask a bystander for help.

Caution: if the person using unfair tactics has organizational power superior to your own, objecting to unfair tactics might be unwise. Use discretion. Go to top Top  Next issue: Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I  Next Issue

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