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 counterproductiveTo 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.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good
and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- Masked Messages
- Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them
into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they
are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
- Contextual Causes of Conflict: I
- When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But
the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.
- Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not
be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern.
- Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous.
But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection
of their techniques.
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- Coming April 1: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 1.
- And on April 8: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I
- When we report the status of the work we do, we sometimes confront the temptation to embellish the good news or soften the bad news. How can we best deal with these obstacles to reporting status with integrity? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.