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:
- Recalcitrant Collaborators
- Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments,
other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant,
what can we do?
- Peace's Pieces
- Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken
by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
- On Snitching at Work: II
- Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you
to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.
- Contextual Causes of Conflict: II
- Too often we assume that the causes of destructive conflict lie in the behavior or personalities of
the people directly participating in the conflict. Here's Part II of an exploration of causes that lie
- Much of what we call backstabbing is actually just straightforward attack — nasty, unethical,
even evil, but not backstabbing. What is backstabbing?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: 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. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: 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. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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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.