Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Let’s Argue About It

We must revive the (almost) lost arts of argument and criticism.

Several months back, I wrote about being tough on ideas but gentle on people in order to create a more idea- and innovation-friendly culture. Whenever I repeat that line in a talk, it garners smiles and nods. But while the notion resonates, the question remains: How exactly do we do that? A peek at today’s political debates or various online comment streams reveals arguments about as thoughtful as those in the old Saturday Night Live “Point/Counterpoint” skit starring Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin.

Debates within organizations rarely contain that level of vitriol, but it can be deceptively easy to slip into battles for the triumph of your idea rather than a spirited quest for the best idea. It’s a natural impulse — few people have been formally trained to argue and critique and, after all, we work in highly competitive environments. Despite our higher-ups encouraging us to collaborate, winning is too often the dominant goal.

I recently came across some eloquent advice from Tufts University philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. He offers four useful insights that help inform collaboration, negotiation, and conflict resolution in organizational settings:

  • You should attempt to reexpress your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’” Getting deeply familiar with the counterarguments to your idea is central to testing and sharpening your own thinking as well as getting ready for negotiation. It is easy to focus on your own position, but you also should be paying as much attention to alternative narratives. This advice tracks closely to the first step in a negotiation method my colleagues and I teach called “the Walk in the Woods.” (This moniker comes from an episode in 1982, when U.S. and Soviet arms negotiators resolved an impasse at a summit after having a conversation during a walk in the woods.) In it, each party expresses its own self-interest and, as important, the other parties are encouraged to actively listen. Everything goes more productively when each party feels it has truly been heard.
  • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).” This also aligns with the next step in the Walk in the Woods — enlarged interests. Listing points of agreement reveals common interests that help lay the groundwork for joint problem solving. And they almost always outnumber points of disagreement when you include desired outcomes, values, and other broader items. The other party can begin to see you as a partner in the search for the best result, not simply an advocate of your own ideas.
  • You should mention anything you have learned from your target.” This is not a step in the walk but it is excellent advice. Acknowledging that you have learned demonstrates that you’re open to considering other ideas and willing to modify your position when presented with compelling evidence. In a collaborative setting, this sets the stage for innovative brainstorming (the third step of the walk). In adversarial situations, it may help soften your opponent’s defenses.
  • Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.” Dennett’s approach clearly emphasizes preparation, preparation, and more preparation. This may seem a luxury better suited to his world of academic conferences and peer-reviewed journals than the hurly-burly of business life. However, while there are situations that require an immediate comeback, much of our instant-reply culture is self-imposed. How many of the items that cross your desk each day really require a snap response — particularly the most significant ones? How many would benefit from a bit of research and reflection? Even in a confrontation, Dennett points out, careful groundwork prepares your opponent to be more receptive to your argument. It’s a psychologically sound approach.

Everything goes more productively when each party feels it has truly been heard.

Dennett, however, is a philosopher in pursuit of a greater understanding of truth and the human condition, so his insights may not go far enough for someone confronted with more mundane, yet high-consequence, situations such as choosing software system A or B. One healthcare executive I interviewed faced just such a choice. In his case, it was an electronic medical record system, and he had definite ideas on the direction in which to go. Several of his subordinates disagreed. He encouraged open, evidence-based debate and they went back and forth. In the end, he became convinced that his colleagues’ answer was the right one for the organization and he went with it. Beyond that decision (which turned out well, by the way), he acquired a reputation as fair and appreciative of a well-prepared case. That halo effect has benefited him many times since.

The Walk in the Woods can address these situations by taking up where Dennett left off. The final step of the walk — aligned interests — is all about capturing new points of agreement made possible by creating a problem-solution environment in which all can claim some victory. The positive nature of the process is as important as the actual agreement, as it demonstrates the benefits and possibilities of moving beyond adversarial combat.

Becoming too entrenched in your own position can lead to blind spots resulting from cognitive biases and positional prejudice — the same situation can look quite different when viewed through the lens of finance versus that of legal or marketing. The actual conditions are likely more nuanced and complex than can be seen from any one position alone. If your goal truly is the best outcome for your organization, your associates, your customers, and your investors, it pays to learn how to argue and critique properly and productively.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.