How to tone down an argument

February 3, 2016 3coze

I’m in the midst of an exciting new project building the very first 3COze product. We’ve decided that of all the tools to help teams become more effective, the ones that are most needed are the tools to help teams have more productive conflict. Our conflict toolkit is taking shape and soon we’ll be looking for people to test it out and give us feedback. Let us know if you’d be interested.

In the meantime, I’m dissecting conflict and coming at it every which way, trying to articulate what makes conflict work and what sends it down a toxic path. One of those things that differentiates healthy from unhealthy conflict is the extent to which the individuals involved validate the perspectives, expertise, and feelings of the others.

We invalidate

Most people in the midst of conflict send very strong signals that they don’t value the perspectives of the person they are arguing with. (Imagine the person with his fingers in his ears humming loudly to block out the person talking.) Instead of modeling openness and curiosity about how the issue looks from the other side, combatants become entrenched and focus exclusively on proving that they’re right.

Think about a recent disagreement. Did you add more and more facts to your argument to counteract each piece of contrary evidence presented by the other side? Did each piece of supporting data become a brick in a wall that separated you and made it more and more difficult to come together in a workable solution?

Here’s how you might be invalidating a person you’re arguing with:

  • After he speaks, you make no reference to what he said and instead jump straight in to your argument
  • Your points get stronger and more polarized in response to her opposition
  • You question his motives
  • You question her relevance, competence, or preparation
  • You turn your body away from the person and toward all the other people in the room

How do you validate?

Validating someone you’re having an argument with simply means giving credence to the debate and to the debater. Rather than negating the person’s perspective, you accept two things: 1) it is valuable to hear different perspectives and to ensure the team is thinking an issue through fully; and 2) the person you’re arguing with is adding value by presenting a unique point of view.

The minute that you accept that the conflict is productive and that the person you’re in conflict with is worthy, the nature of the conflict will immediately change for the better. The tone will improve as the conflict becomes centered on the ideas, rather than the individuals who are presenting them.

How do I do it?

Small changes in the language you use will demonstrate that you value the other person and her perspectives. Try using one or more of the following in your next conflict.

  • “I think this is a really important issue that we need to hash out.”
  • “Thanks for raising this issue because I’ve been uncomfortable with where we’re heading.”
  • “From your perspective, this is about…”
  • “What you think we’ve been missing from our plan is…”
  • “I think it took guts to put that on the table. I respect that.”
  • “You come at this from a very different perspective than me so it’s natural that you see it differently than I do.”
  • “What I heard you say is… is that accurate?”

Again, you are validating the value of the conflict and of the value of the person involved. That doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with his point. Even if you don’t agree with his point, it’s really important to make him feel like you’re listening, and adapting what you think based on his contribution.

Then you can add your perspective with one of the following pivots:

  • “I think this is a really important issue we need to hash out. Here’s how I’m thinking about this issue…”
  • “Thanks for raising this issue because I’ve been uncomfortable with where we’re heading. My discomfort stems from…”
  • “From your perspective, this is about… For me, it’s more about…”
  • “What you think we’ve been missing from our plan is… I don’t see it that way. I think… That might be because I…”
  • “I think it took guts to put that on the table. I respect that. So let me reciprocate. Here’s what I’ve been thinking but not saying…”
  • “You come at this from a very different perspective than me so you’re going to see it differently than I do. My perspective is based on…”
  • “What I heard you say is… is that accurate? Now I want to make sure you’ve understood my perspective so we can work toward a solution.”

If you go first in validating the importance of the debate and the value of the person you’re debating with, it will reduce defensiveness, keep things issue-focused, and greatly increase the speed with which you get to a mutually agreeable solution. Give it a try in your next argument.

 

Further Reading

4 secrets of avoiding the conflict spiral

Stop conflict before it starts

Tips for those who have been told to tone the conflict down

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