Butting Heads: How to Argue Productively

Butting Heads: How to Argue Productively by Laura StackIt’s been said that every person brings joy to others: some when they enter a room and some when they leave it. The latter disagrees just to be disagreeable. But no matter how good natured people are, if you bring any two human beings together, they’ll find something to disagree about eventually. The strong personalities inherent in any business endeavor can result in people butting heads at all levels. You might find yourself at odds with a team member, another leader, or with your own superior. When you find yourself at loggerheads with someone for any reason, you’ll want to find the most efficient way to resolve the issue quickly, so you can move forward with the business at hand.

Needless to say, I’m not talking about small opinion issues that don’t matter in the long run, like what color to make a report’s cover. If your team argues about issues like that, you have bigger problems to work out. No, I mean important issues that can affect your career or your productivity: like whether or not to dismiss someone, or a negative performance evaluation you disagree with, or how to change a company brand.

How can you argue your point productively, so everyone can move quickly through the dispute phase and get back to work?

1. Avoid personal attacks. No matter what the other person does, keep your disagreement clean. Don’t use sarcasm to undermine their position, avoid name-calling, and never talk about them behind their backs. These behaviors will ultimately rebound on you, solidifying their decision against you and damaging team solidarity and goodwill. This especially goes for leaders, because we have greater influence than most—not just on our team members, but on other leaders as well. I’ve put this first, because losing your temper can ruin your reputation and hurt your career if the wrong person witnesses or learns of it.

2. Get all your ducks in a row. Prepare your arguments, and have all your facts straight. Probe them for weaknesses, ideally so you can strengthen your position. Run your thoughts by neutral people and ask them to shoot holes in your argument. Ultimately, you may find that your position fails when other factors are brought into the light, or yours simply has less merit than the other person’s. If this proves the case, admit your mind has been changed and bow out gracefully. Don’t stick with an incorrect position just to be “right.”

3. Approach a disagreement cautiously. Investigate not only the facts of the situation, but also intangibles like how the individual you’ve gotten crossways with receives disagreement. This may not be a big issue if the other person works for you, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore their concerns. If the other person is another manager, you should take their response to criticism more seriously. Other leaders may be vicious infighters, especially if they believe you’ve put their headcount or resources in jeopardy. If the other person is your superior, test to see how they accept disagreement with an open discussion. If you can’t get an answer from them directly, then discreetly inquire with others about how they’ll react to disagreement. At Zappos, the shoe retailer, issues rarely escalate to actual head-butting because Tony Hsieh, the president, invites straightforward disagreement at all levels and listens to the concerns of his team members.

4. Seriously consider their argument. The other person in the dispute may have some good points, in which case you can integrate them into your decision-making process and hammer out a workable compromise. If you don’t understand a certain direction, find out the reasons behind the decision. Your manager may have reasons for her argument which, when explained logically, will help you understand the constraints more fully, so you can give your wholehearted support.

5. Disagree early, clearly, and politely. Make your position known as soon as you reasonably can. Be simple, to the point, and specific about your concerns. If a new process someone has mandated won’t work, tell that person why, and back it up. Maybe your database system won’t interface with the new generation of enterprise servers IT wants to upgrade to, resulting in a potential information silo. Once you make them aware of the problem, they can update your system to match. Don’t dispute an argument in general terms; always use specific examples to refute it—and do so in a way that doesn’t cause the other person to lose face.

6. Keep the lines of communication open. You can’t work something out if you refuse to talk to one another or hide behind email. Jump on the phone or call face-to-face. Present your arguments, listen to others’, and decide what you must do to clear a productive pathway again.

In the End

If you’ve made your argument and supported it logically, but the decision goes against you anyway, just grab a paddle and start rowing. True leaders can disagree behind closed doors, but when they emerge, they present a united front. Agree or not, everyone accepts ownership in the decision in which they participated.

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