Three Steps to Healthy Discussions On Your Team How to Shift from Heated Debates to Productive Dialogues
A leader asks his team: “How can we improve customer service?”
Person 1: “I think we should get someone from outside our company to train us.”
Person 2: “No, I don’t think we should get someone to train us; we should do our own training.”
Person 1: “Getting someone from the outside could shed a new perspective, and you know we desperately need that.”
Person 3: “I think I agree with getting someone from the outside. None of us have time to develop something internally.”
By this time, Person 2 feels like he is being cornered. He feels like there is merit in getting someone from outside the company, but in his mind, there could also merit in having someone develop training internally. He persists to defend his position. He gives yet one more way to make his idea a reality.
Person 2: “If we develop and use our own team, we have everyone’s buy-in, and know our team better. Even if we don’t have time, we need to make time. Somehow…”
Some people look away from the debating parties.
Many business books and thought leaders tout creative tension on our teams. They state that healthy and vigorous debate is good. Many teams interpret it as a wild west sort of discussion, where several gun slinging parties come to the town square and start shooting ideas at one another. Sure, there may be a winner, but injuries abound, and not always do the best ideas win.
We must have clear guidelines and better means of discussion. We must have rules of engagement. Rules of dialogue. Let me show you a better way to engage people to get the best solutions. The three steps I present will not feel automatic. First, they must be understood and agreed upon by everyone, then practiced. But I believe this process will harness everyone’s creative energy, the quiet and the loud, the bold and the timid, the sensitive and creative, and the bold get-it-done-now team members.
When Things Get Heated
No one likes to be wrong. So when someone stakes their position, they will most likely aim to defend it for the rest of the discussion. The heart of this three-step approach aims to avoid this human tendency.
When things get heated, people rarely say, “Oh yeah, you are right. I was wrong.” As soon as I hear, “I think we should…” followed by someone else saying, “I think we should not…” I know we are not at a place where all options will be explored. Why? Because people are busy refuting each other—and many times they are the two most vocal, outspoken people.
See, the way to reach the best solution (and I presume that’s our goal) is to not get started gun slinging and mud slinging. A tug of war is the worst way to explore all possible options because the focus quickly shifts to each party jockeying to prove their position. Even when the intention is to dig deeper to refine the best solution, the result is only digging deeper into one option, and not thinking of all the possibilities.
Rather, as leaders, we must know how to present our ideas in a way that does not offend people. Some may say, our focus should not be people’s feelings, but to arrive at the best solution. While I disagree with that premise, even if we say that we do not care about people’s feelings, this is truly not the best way to get the best ideas. The best way, is when people feel empowered, nurtured, encouraged, and uplifted—when they synergize as they give ideas, not antagonize each other.
You may wonder then how two people (or a group) can arrive at a solution if they don’t debate and exchange ideas that way? Here’s how:
STEP ONE: List All of the Options
In this step, the group only lists options for solutions—good options and bad ones, crazy ones and tame ones. Anything that comes to mind, any options one can think of. For instance, in the illustration above, “How can we improve customer service?” would be answered by everyone. All options would be listed without anyone expressing good or bad opinions, without anyone sneering, cheering, or snickering. During this step, there must only be people encouraging others to offer ideas. So the leader would say, “Okay, I just want ideas. What are all the options we could do? Good and bad. Crazy and lame. No judgments. No negative hisses. Let’s take fifteen minutes to write on the board every thing we can think of.”
Guidelines for Step One:
- The leader, or facilitator, must take charge to enforce the rules.
- No one is allowed to stake their position. Statements that begin with “I think we should…” or “the answer is…” are not allowed.
- Solicit ideas, options, and possibilities.
- Go for the crazy, out-of-the-box ideas! As the leader, you must praise the crazy ideas and be careful not to allow anyone to put people or ideas down.
- People will have a tendency to exclaim as a person shares an idea they like, “Oh yeah… I like that idea!” Not allowed. That’s staking a claim. If you allow this now, then later in the process when people choose ideas they like best, they will be obliged to defend the idea they supported in the beginning without open-mindedly considering other options. Also, once people stake a position or announce what they like, it diverts everyone’s focus from coming up with more possible solutions to thinking whether they agree or disagree.
- Remain at this step until there is silence, and no one has more options to share, or until the time you allowed for this step is done.
- This is the stage where the honey is, not the debate. When this step is executed well, many creative and innovative ideas are generated. It is up to you, as the leader, to protect this fragile process. Everyone’s tendency (especially those who do not know this method) is to abort this process and move excitedly to discuss their opinions, and everyone else’s. That’s the place people want to intuitively move, because we all want to prove that our thoughts are amazing, or another’s are flawed. Don’t allow it.
STEP TWO: Discuss the Pros and Cons
Now that all ideas have been exhausted, allow people to talk about the pros and cons of each option. The same old tendency will pervade, “I think this is the way we should go,” someone will interject. Here we must limit the discussion to the pros and cons for each idea. The purpose for this discussion is to explore the pros and cons in a non-biased way, so everyone has all the data needed to make the best decision.
Your job, as the leader or facilitator, is to make sure the pros and cons are discussed and written. Calmly. All three steps must be calm. When emotions erupt, people aim to defend rather than discover. Only after all the pros and cons are discussed will you allow people to express opinions. But there, we must have rules of engagement as well.
STEP THREE: Express Perspectives
As the process is followed, we have now calmly listed all possible solutions and all pros and cons. The consistent result in my experience: almost everyone chooses the same option. Why? Because we all saw the analysis. Even for those who don’t agree often accept the other opinions because they saw the reasoning behind them.
As you conclude the discussion, be careful to avoid statements like, “I think the way to go is…” Instead, you want to say, “I vote for this option.” Here is why. The minute you say to the world that your choice is the way to go, it subtly creates division between those who supported that option and those who did not. If you say a specific option is your perspective, your vote, or your preference, (or words like these), you are communicating humility, that yours is one (of many) votes, perspectives, or preferences. Even though you may be sure of the way to go, someone else may have a better method, and you remain open to hearing others.
This three-step method for brainstorming has been life changing for me, even in my personal life. My wife and I were discussing what we want to do during our Christmas break. Typically, one spouse may say, “I think we should go on a cruise!” The other may respond, “No, I don’t let’s go to Colorado to ski.” Even though two people love each other and are not really fighting about it, this is not the most efficient way to brainstorm about a vacation. The best way, and this is what Joanne and I did, is to ask, “What are all the options we could do this Christmas?” We listed ideas. After we finished, we discussed pros and cons to each, and then we both felt good about what we decided to do.
I encourage you to practice this method at the conference table and the kitchen table. Share it with those in your circle and try it together. It will eventually become second nature, and a powerful resource for all your discussions and decision-making.
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