Winning the Argument or Solving the Problem

(inspired by Steve Gilliland)

As a highly competitive industry in rapidly changing times and increasing  ecological pressures, the engineering profession seem trapped in a pattern of conflict we can’t seem to break.

The arguments, the quarrels, and the bickering feed into each other and the bitterness is heartbreaking.

In well functioning teams, conflict is healthy and encouraged to interrogate ideas. As engineers (or, you know, Twitter) we are trained to fight with logic, facts, right and wrong. As we progress we become better at debate, and it becomes easy to cut through explanations and point out the errors in other people’s logic. Winning is winning at arguments.

But we are also seeing that only a certain subset of engineers participate in this robust culture. Many others in the team get quieter, more emotional, and even leave. We call them weak, not suited to the highly competitive world of engineering. It’s their fault.

“If we want to learn the truth, we have to find new ways to listen. If we want our best work to have consequences, we have to be heard. “Anyone who values truth,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind, “should stop worshipping reason.””

What we don’t understand is the depth of our own fear. What if it wasn’t their fault? What if we are wrong? What if we are limited in our ability to adapt to this rapidly changing world, with different requirements for success? That would mean we’d have to change. But change to what? How?

If we love our profession, the ability to solve complex challenges and create fantastic things, we need to be willing to sit on our own feelings and try to understand the engineers who are different to us, rather than try to win the argument. When we stop arguing and start listening, creative potential starts opening up. We get to experience the creative talent in the members of the team who cannot or do not wish to engage in binary arguments.

It is easy to debate. It is much more difficult to listen to co-workers. It is hard to hear that we may be responsible for much of their pain and frustration. When they tell us that we are patronising, that we are treating them like children when we thought we were treating each other as teammates. We view ourselves as being very rational and democratic. Our coworkers see us as being very defensive and authoritarian. It is hard to hear this kind of stuff. It couldn’t be true (or could it?). True or not, the important thing is that this is how our coworkers perceive us.

It hurts to see our imperfections. Of course our first reaction is to defend with our debate armament. It feels much better to win an argument than face our weaknesses. When times get tough, winning arguments is playing on familiar ground. We feel more secure, but walls form between coworkers, and that limits productivity, and creative thinking. It’s impossible to feel curious, for example, while also feeling threatened.

It is scary and painful to open up and build team relationships. But it strengthens the team. It allows us to find strengths in our teams that we would never have recognized before. It allows us to find insights into ourselves.

We need to make a choice between security and true innovation. We need to take the risk.

In any conversation, there are two elements. The first one is the subject or the topic. The second one is the process — what the individuals are doing to each other in the discussion and how they are making each other feel.

In our interactions we need to look underneath the expressed problems to the actual problems. This is done by becoming aware of process, instead of subject matter. When we look at process in conversations we can almost always improve communication by paying attention to four steps:

1. Try to understand the other person’s point of view. Focus on what they are trying to tell you, not on how you can make them change their mind. You don’t have to agree, but listen.

2. What’s happening to feelings during the conversation? Ask yourself, What am I doing to the other people in this conversation? How am I making them feel? How are they making me feel? As the conversation continues, you may feel threatened and uneasy by what is being said. You may not recognize this, but if you feel like correcting or defending, be careful. If you yield to these feelings you’ll probably have an argument. Sit on them. I know it’s not easy.

3. Repeat in your own words what the other person seems to be saying or feeling. This clarifies potential misunderstandings, and may lead to exploring important nuances.

Yes, this may feel rather ‘kumbaya’, but check your own reactions during an argument. If someone seems more interested in winning, do you really believe that they are interested in what you are saying? And are you willing to trust them with your real opinions? Generally, in such instances, people become defensive and combative. On the other hand, how do you feel about someone who looks you in the eye, listens to you, and hears not only your words but your feelings?

4. Wait with your advice. Sometimes all you need to do is listen, and almost always, just listening gives new insight into the real challenges. Let the other person finish. Sometimes advice is an action, not an instruction. Solving a challenge together may give insight into why the challenge may have seemd insurmountable. Even if it didn’t, learning together is great mentorship.

One roadblock to understanding the process of communication develops if we communicate one message with our words and another with our tone of voice, inflection, gestures, or loudness of voice. This is particularly difficult with interactions across different cultures and backgrounds. “You must have had a hard day” can mean two different things, depending on whether it is spoken with tenderness or a sneer. If you get the wrong response to your message, don’t immediately defend yourself by attacking the other person. That’s setting up another argument on the topic. Instead, focus on the process and ask both yourself and your partner, “What did I say or do to make it come across that way?” It’s professional conduct.

In closing

Take emotions seriously. Acknowledge when you see them, kindly, maybe share your own story of when you felt the same, articulate the shared feeling. Humans share a tendency to simplify and demonize, it’s true; but we also share a desire for understanding. We need to learn to amplify contradictions and widen the lens on paralyzing debates. We need to ask questions that uncover people’s motivations. All of us could learn to listen better, to expose people to new information in ways they can accept. When conflict is cliché, complexity is breaking news.


This post was created by taking the text from a relationship counselling post by Steve Gilliland and replacing the spouses with teammates, and a bit of editing.

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