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.
Caution: if the person using unfair tactics has organizational power superior to your own, objecting to unfair tactics might be unwise. Use discretion. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Corrosive Buts
- When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us
into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
- What You See Isn't Always What You Get
- We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever
you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your
interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
- The Perils of Limited Agreement
- When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement
is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them?
- Unintended Condescension: II
- Intentionally making condescending remarks is something most of us do only when we lose control. But
anyone at any time can inadvertently make a remark that someone else experiences as condescending. We
explored two patterns to avoid last time. Here are two more.
- Resolving Ambiguity
- Ambiguity is anathema to success in collaborations. It causes errors and rework, extending time-to-market.
When we interpret information, we often choose the first interpretation we find, never recognizing that
others are possible. That leads to failure.
See also Conflict Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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