At work, debate is one tool we use to collaborate in decision-making. Most debates are informal — rarely is there a clear statement of the debatable premise, and the flow of contributions is relatively free. We tend not to allocate equal time to each participant. We allow ourselves to use rhetorical fallacies, assertions without proof, deception, made-up "facts," intimidation, and threats. Sometimes there is shouting. Sometimes we exclude certain people from the discussion for superficial reasons that hide the truth: we disagree with them and we wish to muffle their voices. The results are predictable. Many of our decisions are defective.
There is another way to go.
Imagine how these debates would go if all participants accepted the possibility that their own views might not be complete or entirely correct. Imagine how these debates would go if all participants adopted this stance:
Given what I now know and understand, I've made a judgment. But I could be wrong about that.
A common objection to this approach is that it might be seen as a sign of weakness that others would exploit to gain acceptance for their views. Certainly, "unilateral disarmament" in the heat of the moment does carry such a risk. But at a time when there's little at stake, a group that works together over a period of time, making many decisions, can adopt this approach thenceforward. If they do, they might find some surprising benefits.
These benefits become available, in part, because the conventional oppositional approach to debate tends to bias what its participants contribute. For example, in an oppositional debate between you and me, if I'm aware or become aware of a weakness in my own position, I might not be inclined to disclose it. And unless you know enough detail about my position to recognize the weakness, you won't raise the issue either. The debate might come to a close without ever addressing the issue. Alternatively, if I'm aware or become aware of a strength in your position, I might not be inclined to mention it. And unless you also recognize it and use it in the debate, the debate can come to a close without ever weighing the significance of the issue. In a more collaborative approach to the debate, points like these are more likely to surface.
The collaborative approach Acknowledging that one
can be mistaken can
be truly liberatingcan be truly liberating. Gone is the burden of preparing defenses of one's own views against anticipated attacks. Taking its place is intellectual curiosity and the urge to discover alternative views. Gone is the burden of seeking objections to the views we believe others hold. Taking its place is intense curiosity about the views they actually do hold — and why.
Debates are more effective and produce more reliable results when they're founded on two fundamental notions.
- We do the best we can with what we have
- The first notion is the idea that at the outset of the debate, or at any point in the course of the debate, the views of all participants are the best they can be with the knowledge and insight those participants possess at the time. When we can believe this about everyone's views, respect for those views comes more easily.
- Learning is no cause for shame
- When we experience shame upon getting caught in the act of learning something, we're more likely to avoid getting caught again, or worse, we're more likely to avoid learning. That avoidance makes for difficulty in accepting whatever of value others might have to offer, which reduces debate effectiveness by limiting the value of exchanging views.
For a group trying to reach a joint decision, incorporating these two elements into its microculture yields an important advantage. Instead of participants preparing to defend their own views and attack the views of others, they find themselves seeking joint clarification of all views. And from that mix there usually emerges a new framework — a new collection of ideas and insights — that no participant possessed in toto before the exchange began.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of
the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's
- Political Framing: Communications
- 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 communications tactics framers use.
- How Workplace Bullies Use OODA: I
- Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time rely on more
than mere intimidation to escape prosecution. They proactively shape their environments to make them
safe for bullying. The OODA model gives us insights into how they accomplish this.
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: I
- Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention
skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.
- 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
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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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.
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Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.