How To Make Work Arguments Work

Oct 19, 2021 1 Min Read
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Ways To Improve Communication and Reduce Arguments

Imagine never disagreeing at work. Sounds like bliss, but in fact it would be a disaster. You’d never challenge yourself, stretch yourself, innovate your solutions or take alternative approaches.

Yet the evidence shows that most of us prefer to avoid work arguments – in fact, according to research by Vitalsmart, 11% of us would leave our jobs rather than have one.

So how can we have a work argument that is useful rather than confrontational? How do we make work arguments work?

First, understand the bias and judgement that you bring to any conversation and how that might accidentally turn an objective debate into a heated argument.

  • You want to win. You might think you don’t, but you do, or rather your brain does. Once it has decided that it is right, it will go to remarkable lengths to avoid being proved wrong. So, you have to work hard to remain open-minded – after all, you might learn something in this argument, if you are open to it.


  • Cool it. Step back and cool off before you enter a work argument. Tackling any topic in a tense and full-frontal way will only be construed as an attack and the other person will defend themselves – regardless of the subject of your argument.


  • Set it up. Dan Kahneman (thinking fast and slow) talks about setting up cognitive ease as a way to make the recipient more likely to accept your position. This means priming the idea – dropping hints about it a few days before you sit down to thrash it out will mean they have had time to compute and are more likely to remain rational. Make sure your agenda is clear and transparent – if they sense a hidden agenda, they won’t listen to the central argument because they’ll be scanning for an ambush instead. And smile – if you’re in a good mood, they are likely to mirror it which will help to keep things cordial.


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Second, keep your argument techniques clean. Paul Graham, dubbed the hacker philosopher, wrote ‘how to disagree’ – a paper mainly aimed at how to disagree online, but useful in the context of a work argument too. In it, he provides 6 techniques of arguing – some to avoid and some to emulate.

  • Name calling. This doesn’t have to be crude name-calling (‘you’re an idiot’), it could be camouflaged as quite sophisticated – ‘just because you say it’s true, doesn’t make it so’ is like calling someone a liar.


  • Ad hominem. This means to make it about the person, rather than about their argument. Devaluing a person’s opinion by undermining their personal credibility is a classic political tactic. A common example might be direct, like ‘you’re not exactly an expert in this, are you?’ or indirectly correcting their grammar or pointing out a single factual error which undermines their whole presentation. That they made a grammatical error might be a true statement, but it doesn’t address the argument in any way, and you’ve just made it personal.


  • Responding to tone. You’ve probably heard someone say ‘there’s no need to be flippant about this’, which is again, a way to distract from the core of argument and make it about tone instead. Tone is very easy to misjudge; just because someone laughs about something that doesn’t automatically mean they find it funny – it could be nerves – they could be taking it very seriously. And your argument shouldn’t be about tone, it should be about the subject, so stick to it.


  • Contradiction. This is where you use your own opinion to disagree, but you’re not calling on evidence to give your counter-argument substance. In these cases, the argument can quickly devolve into a battle of values and philosophies. Agile versus Waterfall? ‘I think we all know that Agile is better’ is likely to get a very passionate response from a Waterfall enthusiast – and neither of you will be able to prove the other wrong. Vax versus Antivax? Work from home versus work in the office? These are classic hot topics that can make an argument last for years without resolution.


  • Counterarguments. Now we are starting to get into the space of a quality work argument by using evidence and reasoning. If you have ever ended up ‘violently agreeing’ on something, it’s likely that you’ve both landed on the same conclusion but came from a different angle. ‘Violently agreeing’ on your conclusion, but still arguing about which fact is more right when it no longer matters.


  • Refutation. A classic lawyer’s approach is to take a particular statement made by the other person and unpack it. For example, ‘when you say Agile is simply better for everything, do you mean true Agile? And how do you define better? And what do you mean by everything?’ Whilst this can feel like heavy questioning, it can help to keep the conversation clear and fact-based, objective and helps the other person to reframe what they meant if that statement isn’t one, they are comfortable to scrutinise.


  • Addressing the central point. This is the most powerful form of argument and addresses the central idea in the argument. The best way to get to this is to ask them questions to help isolate that central point, so you can focus on that, and avoid all the other distractions that will slide you backwards in your techniques. Open questions keep the conversation open – try ‘tell me more about that’, ‘can you give me some examples of that?’, or simply ‘keep going’ to make sure you truly understand the central point of their argument before you respond.


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Lastly, if you feel the conversation going in the wrong direction, bring it back on track by making an alignment statement like ‘we both want the right outcome here’ or ‘we’re both on the same team’ – it will help to avoid full blown confrontation and make a work argument work.

Supplement the tips above with the 4 Areas of Mastery/Skills in this video below.

You can prevent arguments at work by staying engaged with your employees at all times using this digital solution called Happily (or Budaya for those from Indonesia) . Happily is an amazing engagement app built for organisations to drive engagement amongst employees. It has amazing analytics and also provides activities for employees to be fully immersed in the organisation's culture and values. To find out more, click here or email info@leaderonomics.com

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Rebecca Houghton, author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’, is a Leadership and Talent Expert and founder of BoldHR. Rebecca builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at a strategic, team and individual level. For more information about Rebecca can help your team visit www.boldhr.com.au

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