How To Discuss—Not Argue—The Issues
Most discussions I see follow a traditionally confrontational approach, more akin to a wrestling match than a civil exchange of ideas. I believe there is a better way to talk with one another than to constantly battle and defend our positions. If you would like to have more productive verbal exchanges with others, you may find this article helpful.
The Problem—The “Defend Your View” Approach
Here is an example of how most discussions take place.
- Person A: “I think we should extend our store hours.”
- Person B: “Well, I don’t know if that’s a good idea because there is not much demand during those hours.”
- Person A defends her position: “Not having a demand during our current hours does not mean that we won’t have a demand during evening hours.”
Person B hates to disagree, but also feels that the truth should be stated. Each person feels strongly about their position. Each debates their own point of view. The discussion spatters a bit further with each continuing to press in, guarding their point. Tension builds. Neither is willing to relinquish and lose what has now become a battle. Ultimately, a poor decision is made because each person fears losing their argument and a smoldering melodrama unfolds.
We are all so used to this type of exchange that we think it is the only way to communicate. In any relationship decisions have to be made, but first they have to be agreed upon or discussed. So, what do we do? Naturally we each present our own points of view. This is usually applauded as a good debate. We approach a discussion as if we are in a tug-of-war. We have all done it. And many times it yields decent results. But it can cause friction or even heated arguments. And I believe most often, it does not lead to all options being explored.
I call this the “Defend Your View” approach. I see this all the time in teams, one-on-one discussions, marriage relationships, and even at high level meetings. People aim to reach a solution by arguing a point. We state our opinions early on, and then we each rush to defend our positions until a winner and a loser emerge from the fight. Even with professionalism and sportsmanship, even having a good nature and great connection, no one likes to lose. A complete and full discussion can not develop because of the tension created and this prevents the best decision from being reached.
Let me share with you a better way.
The Solution—The “Discuss the Options” Approach
The solution comes in three steps. These would be best applied if both parties are aware of these concepts. So if you agree with me, I invite you to start applying these principles yourself, and then at the right time introduce them to others in your circles of influence.
Step One: List the options without discussing their merits.
The merits should not be discussed because it is important to list all the options first. Let me illustrate. Here’s a specific example of an exchange that is communicated poorly about opening their store beyond 5pm.
- Person A: I think we should open the store until 7 pm. I think we are losing our customer base.
- Person B: I really don’t think we should open late at all because remember when we did two years ago? Our numbers were low.
- Person C: Well, we should open late. But it should be until 9 pm because what we are after is branding ourselves. And it matters less how busy we are.
This of course would keep going for a while as each person argues for their position. As you see from this typical exchange, each may make a good point, but there is a problem here. How about the other options? How about opening until 8 pm, or 6 pm, or 10 pm?
The first step of a healthy discussion is to be disciplined to list all the possible options first. Don’t focus on the pros and cons. If you think of pros and cons, as you should and you will, just write them down on a personal note pad to reference later.
When I suggest this to people I am meeting with, of course after I get to know them, it is so hard for them to follow this first rule. They are usually excited to tell me or the others in the room their brilliant thoughts as to why an option is good or bad. But when we do that, we stop focusing on listing all the options.
It is imperative that if we are to come up with great solutions, we must first pour all our effort into exhausting the options. When we start going into the pros and cons, that effort is diverted.
And no matter what, do not firmly stake your position. Don’t say, “I think the best idea is (fill in the blank).” Because you don’t know what the best idea is yet. That’s why you are having the discussion, so the options can be listed and then discussed.
Think about it. If you say that, others have two choices: agree with you or prove you wrong. So at this stage if you say, “What I think should take place is…,” then you have created tension. What you should say instead is, “I think an option that we can add may be (fill in the blank).” And then just add the option.
Step Two: Stop listing options and begin discussing the merits.
After all known options are listed, you can now focus on the pros and cons. Again, do not start by saying, “I think we should do this.” This statement will kill the discussion.
Instead, all the energy should be focused on listing the pros and cons of each option. As you list the pros and cons, the best solution will begin presenting itself. But here again, guide your team not to rush to announcing what they believe the final answer to be. As soon as that is stated, people rush to defend or support that position. All pros and cons have to be exhausted up to a point that all agree that Step Two of the discussion is complete.
Step Three: Ask people what they see as the best option.
If the first two steps are done well, the decision is usually the same for everyone because all points of view have been presented thoroughly. So here again you don’t want to say, “I think we should do this.” As soon as you stake a position, you put people in a corner to either shoot you down or agree with you.
Instead, you’ll want to say, “Based on what I am seeing, my vote would be Option X. What do you see as the best option?” You want to come across that this is what you see, but what you see may not be accurate (because it may not be). That gives room to the other person to present a different point of view.
Once you practice these techniques, you will arrive at conclusions in a much healthier way! Try it. It can revolutionize your discussions.
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