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 Advantages of Political Attack: I
- In workplace politics, attackers sometimes prevail even when the attacks are specious, and even when
the attacker's job performance is substandard. Why are attacks so effective, and how can targets respond
- Political Framing: Strategies
- In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual
by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for
reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
- Overtalking: I
- Overtalking is the practice of using one's own talking to prevent others from talking. It can lead to
hurt feelings and toxic conflict. Why does it happen and what can we do about it?
- Unresponsive Suppliers: II
- When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can
affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive
- Strategic Waiting
- Time can be a tool. Letting time pass can be a strategy for resolving problems or getting out of tight
places. Waiting is an often-overlooked strategic option.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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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.