Disagreements are an inevitable, and often healthy, part of relating to other people in the workplace.
Disagreements can lead to greater personal development, deeper relationships, and even better products, just to name a few of the benefits. But many people haven’t learned how to approach disagreements constructively. Bo Seo, a two-time world debating champion who has literally written the book on “Good Arguments”, recently joined Round for a virtual discussion and workshop to share some of his wisdom. His tips, amassed from the world of competitive debate, could help you navigate and even embrace conflict in your personal and professional life.
Every disagreement should start with an ounce of agreement, and that is naming exactly what it is that you disagree about and will try to reach alignment on. This kind of specificity will lead to the most productive kind of debate. In the workplace, for example, you want to set some ground rules for the discussion by naming the disagreement you’re going to get into. It can be tempting to expand the debate to pile on all your grievances, but doing so will dilute your position, inflame the situation, and make it harder to see eye-to-eye.
An argument or debate isn’t simply about committing to your point of view on a subject and drilling that into someone. An argument is a tool for getting people to reconsider their views — or at least consider those of others. This requires what Seo calls the “burden of proof”: you have to be able to show truth and importance. If you can demonstrate both the truth and importance of your claim, then you have a foundation for a good argument. Seo brings to mind the following example: Say you want to argue that people should give up eating meat because vegetarianism is better for the environment. For the argument to be successful, you have to be able to back up the environmental claim with truth and facts. And, second, you’d have to explain the importance of taking care of the environment in this particular way (versus, for example, decreasing air travel to minimize harmful emissions or other tactics someone could use to benefit the planet). Seo recommends stepping back to answer this question for yourself: “What is my argument in service of?” Without showing your “opponent” the inherent value of your claim, and how that value applies to them too, you’ll lose your opportunity to bring others around to your position.
A good argument isn’t necessarily one that has a clear “winner” at the end. A good argument, says Seo, is at the very least one in which both sides walk away feeling like they would do it again — that they would come back together for another round of discussion. That’s why it’s critical to “know when a disagreement is off course, and when it's time to hit the brakes and just stop,” says Seo. It’s better to pause and revisit the debate at another time then let it continue to go off the rails.
Just as important is being able to realize when a debate isn’t the right course of action from the get-go. In some cases, notes Seo, two people don’t actually know all the facts, and they aren’t ready to hash out their position. If that’s the circumstance you’re in, you could say to a colleague, “Okay, we don't actually know enough facts here to debate, so let's just hear each other out. You say your thing, I’ll say my thing, and we're not even going to respond to each other for now. We’re just going to listen, go do our research, and then come back and maybe we’ll debate it then.” Listen to learn? Now who could argue with that?
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