Productive Argument: Get Something Out of It

by Dec 15, 2020Business

You need to show your work

All of us have found ourselves in a disagreement with someone else. Maybe it was in the business world or in your personal life. That might be particularly true given our recent election or might even be something you’re concerned about in terms of confronting family members in the upcoming holiday season.

Regardless of the circumstances, getting into an argument with someone else can feel emotionally draining. You just can’t understand why the other party doesn’t see the issue the way you do. It can get so bad that at times, it can put relationships to the test.

But, as it turns out, you have an opportunity to foster a productive argument by enabling both parties to find some common ground.

Let me explain.

1. Embracing A New Discipline

When we find ourselves toe-to-toe (maybe even nose-to-nose) with someone in an argument, it’s useful to take a step back and recognize what we’re really arguing about.

We can take a lesson from Peter Senge’s classic book, The Fifth Discipline, about how to do this. It’s a thick book filled to the brim with lots of useful tips and techniques. I’d like to focus on one of Senge’s tools he calls, “the Ladder of Inference.” In short, Senge’s ladder has four components:

  • Data
  • Personal Experience Filter
  • Processing
  • Conclusions

We all start with data of some kind, which we use to work towards forming an opinion or a conclusion. We then apply our personal filters–past experiences and biases to that information. Then we use whatever educational or professional training we may have acquired over time to process that filtered information into what we believe is a well-formed conclusion.

It’s no wonder whatever conclusions we come to seem so important and personal–they literally come about because of how we convert data into them.

The problem most of us face when we argue is that we are debating are conclusions at the very top of the Ladder of Inference. But we might not be debating apples-to-apples because we may not have used the same data, filters, or processing to get there.

2. A Better Way to Argue

If we want to get past the point where we’re just yelling at each other, we need to be willing to disclose our Ladders of Inference to each other. That means sharing where you each got your data from. Can you both agree on the source or validity of that data as a starting point?  It very well could be that one party has some data that the other does not.

Then, it’s time to talk through your personal filters and how you interpret that data. This is where past personal experience can play an outsized role. If you once played a game of poker and one of the players–someone wearing a red hat–cheated, you might be biased to think that everyone who wears a red hat cheats at poker. Maybe that sounds implausible, but it’s just how our minds work–but it can be an important factor fueling an argument.

So, too, can be the kind of education or professional experience you have earned. If you have a Ph.D. in statistics and are an expert in probability, you might have a different opinion than someone else about your odds of success in that poker game or what you should bet if you draw a pair of aces.

The whole entire argument can many times be settled by understanding the data being used or how we interpret the data differently based on these factors. Neither of us is technically “wrong,” which opens a path to finding common ground with each other. Of course, you might not end up agreeing, but you will understand exactly why you disagree, without the emotion.

3. Finding Common Ground

The point is that the more we disclose in regards to how we came to our conclusions, the better chance we have of having the other party understand our position in an argument and us understanding theirs.

The next time you find yourself in an argument, show the other person how you came to your conclusion. Show your work. Then ask them to show you how they arrived at theirs.

If you can successfully do that, you’ll find that you can turn your argument into a productive conversation. You might even find that you ultimately agree.