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Why work arguments can be a good thing

By Shandel McAuliffe | |7 minute read
Why work arguments can be a good thing

While there is an increasing number of workplaces inviting people to 'bring their whole selves to work', we are starting to see a correlating increase in tension around discussing controversial or sensitive topics such as vaccination mandates, climate change, reproductive rights or marriage equality.

Recently, a well-known employer told employees to stop discussing abortion at work, yet the same company had the opposite stance on discussing transgender rights or Black Lives Matter. As more and more workplaces publicly identify with some of these issues, our consideration of how to argue in the workplace also needs to be reviewed. I’ll be clear — I absolutely don’t support the approach I just mentioned of banning certain topics from discussion. That’s dealing with work arguments at a symptomatic level rather than addressing the cause: poor conversational practices.

It’s a basic human right to disagree. Yet most of us dislike the idea of an argument, and actively avoid conflict in our day-to-day life and work. We’ve been trained to see arguments as negative, and to suppress this very natural tendency to disagree — especially in the workplace. We’ve come to equate disagreeing with being disagreeable, and we’ve given confrontation a negative connotation.

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Complex organisations have inherent tensions in them that need arguments to be able to resolve them — the tension between sales and service; HQ and the front line; management and workforce. These tensions are inescapable, so why do we train ourselves that addressing that tension is a bad thing?

Most people don’t know how to disagree well because they’ve been taught it’s a bad thing, so they avoid it rather than learn how to do it well. The combined result is unhappy people, poor relationships, passive aggressive or combative behaviours, and issues so far gone that they are a huge challenge to unravel and resolve.

A good workplace argument is good for you!

  • It improves your health. Psychotherapist Antoinette Giacobbe tells us, “The worst part about anger is not expressing it. The more you repress it, the more it can damage your health.”
  • It drives performance. Arguments help us to innovate.
  • Disagreement is a cornerstone of diversity. Diverse teams flourish when differences are celebrated rather than repressed, and a good work argument both promotes inclusion and evidences psychological safety.
  • Venting actually makes you happier: A Chinese/US study demonstrated that when employees expressed their frustration in a regular and structured way, it increased their happiness in the workplace.

Agreeing can be seen as unproductive since it produces no new value. Disagreeing takes skill, however.

So, how can you have a 'good' argument and avoid a 'bad' one?

In his essay, ‘How to Disagree’, Paul Graham gives us a brilliant model for how to have a good argument as opposed to a bad one. The first four ways to have an argument are, I believe, what the company mentioned above is trying to stamp out with their gag order:

These are name-calling (which seems to be common in both social media and children’s playgrounds); ad hominem, which is to attack the opponents beliefs (“of course he’d say that, he’s <insert race/ religion/ political beliefs here>”); responding to tone — addressing the tone of voice (my mind goes back to a great-grandparent telling me “I don’t like your tone of voice, young lady”, does yours?); and contradiction (“everyone knows that’s not true” without stating alternative facts).

None of these responses actually engage the subject of the argument. Rather, they largely attack the individual and of course, result in emotional bust-ups that resolve absolutely nothing and instead belittle values, beliefs, and personal style. This is the realm of opinion and little fact, which is an argument that no-one ever really wins. Even if people bow out, it doesn’t mean they have been persuaded.

Then Mr Graham gives us two ways to argue more persuasively: counterargument, which is the evolution of contradiction but requires you to provide alternative facts; and refutation which is to point out that their facts are incorrect by quoting correct ones. This form of argument requires you to have actually investigated the central point but doesn’t require you to hold a particular opinion. If you’re thinking about lawyers at this point, so am I, but consider the reduction in tension levels with these approaches instead of the first set of methods.

His recommendation is to refute the “central point” — which means separating the issue from the person and accepting that they have a point, albeit one that you would like to challenge with your own facts.

Mr Graham’s framework is just one excellent foundation to train your team, showing them that the least convincing arguments are the most common and take the least effort to make, and that the strongest form of disagreement starts with an element of agreement.

Having an argument is important, useful, and inevitable, so enabling your teams to conduct their arguments with structure and discipline will ensure that arguments become a useful tool for nipping issues in the bud, creating a better team environment and getting to smarter outcomes.

Rebecca Houghton is the author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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