What’s the difference between a Conversation and an Argument?

For those of us in roles that require a lot of discussion, such as Team Leads, Architects, PO or SM roles, we spend a lot of our day talking to different groups. We may view each exchange the same way, but are they really? While thinking through a topic for an SM CoP discussion, since forgotten, I went off on a slight tangent and thought back to a statement that has been driving my recent uptake in writing:

If you want to teach someone to think, train them to write. — Jordan Peterson

As I started to think through this tangent, I went back to some things that I had recently written, to use them as an example for this discussion. In doing so I started to notice a difference between the dialogue I was planning to have with my fellow SM’s and the exchanges I was using these writings in. In picking through these differences I started to notice a common theme between them, with one group I was having conversations, the other I was arguing with. This is not a reflection on the individuals in either group, in many cases they are the same people, this is more of an introspection on how I behave in different situations and some thoughts on how I would like to rectify them.

Writing == thinking

The rabbit hole I chose to go down was around the idea of writing to express myself, to gather my thoughts going into a meeting, to be prepared. What started to surface was that for certain exchanges I did a lot of writing, proofreading, rewriting, sound-boarding and rehearsals. I wanted to have everything straight, the points crisp and clear, to ensure I won. When things went well, I did win, however not always. Sometimes the exchanges didn’t go according to the script. People asked questions, challenged points, we got flustered with one another’s lack of understanding, we rat holed on slide 2 of 15 and all came out with nothing, other than a collective sense of time wasted.

I contrasted this to other meetings that I’ve had, where I’ve gone in with a few scribbled notes, key points that I wanted to get across to the other people in the meeting. No fact checking them, no slides, no logical sequence to the narrative, just a conversation. To my surprise, the conversations were smooth, we all came in, made our points, had a discussion and got out. In agreement! We all won.

Many of these interactions are with the same people, so why such a stark difference?

In digging deeper I feel that part of of it is just down to the forum they are in. If I’m presenting something important to a group that I need them to approve, I put huge amounts of effort into thinking it through, so that no one asks tough questions that might derail the proposal. I argue with people in my head, so that I don’t have to in the meeting. I take what I know people care about and ensure I’m speaking to that. However in doing so I’m not having a conversation with them, I’m arguing with them and they don’t even know it.

To some degree this is just a part of doing business, in certain cases you do have to win to make progress. If you’re asking someone to invest money, time or change the way they do things, they need agree with you. You need to win. The problem is those exchanges should be the exception, in most cases we want to be having meaningful conversations with people. We need to set aside winning.

Participating in Conversations

If we want to have successful and healthy relationships we need to be constantly engaged in constructive conversations, where we are open to talking to others, gathering multiple opinions and coming to a mutual understanding for everyone involved. This isn’t always easy, people are different, everyone has their own culture, their own world view, these often conflict with one another. From this conflict our intrinsic nature to argue keeps popping up, that hard-wired voice that urges us to win. To have the right opinion, the best idea. While getting to the “best” idea is the end goal, it is better to get there through conversation than through argument. As part of that aim, the following are some things that I have been working through to help me change from arguing to conversing.

Don’t Straw Man others

This might sound familiar, someone makes a mistake in a meeting and they are immediately corrected, e.g. “We need to do A, then C, then B.”. There are two possible ways to correct them. In an argumentative way; “The correct sequence is A,B,C! How can you not know that?” or in a conversational way “There may be a misunderstanding, surely we should do A, then B, then C?”. One of these approaches is going to further the conversation, the other will derail it or worse, shut it down.

Nobody will go into a conversation with the expressed purpose of shutting it down, so why do we do it? In many cases we may feel like we’re losing, the person is presenting something we might not agree with but can’t necessarily argue against. So rather than dismantle the idea we attempt to discredit them and hope their proposal comes down as well. This is unfortunately a tried and tested technique. The question is, “Do I really want to shut down the conversation?”.

In the heat of the moment anyone would be forgiven for doing it, I’ve done it more times than I’d care to admit. Sometimes you catch yourself and can bring the conversation back on course. Other times, where it gets away from you, just reflect and regroup, with the express purpose not to let it happen again.

Holding back cards

One of the keys to having a meaningful conversation is to put all your cards on the table. If there is a perception that there is an ulterior motive or you are holding something back then others will react in kind. This will stifle the conversation as nobody is being fully honest with anyone, everyone is only putting themselves at enough risk to stop the conversation grinding to a halt.

We are quite adept at being able to sense something is off by the way that someone is talking, though not always that good at interpreting why. When discussing a particularly sensitive topic, someone might not be able to go into all the details, they might hesitate and be cautious on what they say. This might come across that they have a concern about what they are proposing and are avoiding talking about it. Which won’t go down well.

This can be avoided by simply starting with “I’m working on something but there is nothing final yet, please bear with me.”. This prepares the participants that they could be hesitant in their response and are likely thinking, “Can I say this?” without the fear that they are hiding something. From there everyone knows that the rest of the conversation is intellectually honest and you are only holding back what is genuinely necessary to hold back.

Make no assumptions

For those of us that have been through the numerous reboots of movies like Batman or Spider Man, the common complaint is always, “Why do I have to see their parents / uncle die? We all know that is the core of their backstory and is why they are the way they are!”. But the reason it is done for each iteration is that it is important for everyone to know that. Maybe this is someone’s first time to the franchise, maybe they don’t know the story already. So the director takes the time each reboot to bring everyone through it again.

The same is true when having a conversation, many participants may have been through the topic several times, the core group might have been together since the inception of the topic but for others it could be the first introduction to it. It is important that in a group conversation everyone is on the same page, so that everyone can converse at the same level. If something is left out, a new person may feel the need to argue a point that has already been settled by the other members. By bringing them through the full journey they can see the positions that everyone is working from.

This is not easy, it takes a lot of time and can often feel wasteful. Sometimes it can lead to shutting people out of a conversation, as “I don’t want to have to explain it all again!”. However in summarising the previous conversations it can actually be helpful for all involved, to recap where they are and where they have come from. Sometimes it can even spark a fresh debate, where something settled needs to be discussed again, as things have changed or after some thought someone is no longer happy with the outcome. Provided it is done as a conversation, this is entirely healthy and the foundation can be solidified more from it.

Leave the ego at the door

One of the most difficult types of conversation is a negative one, no one enjoys them, however they are often the most crucial ones that we need to have. They typically start with, “We are all doing our best, but…”. From there it is inevitable for the people on the receiving end to get defensive and start arguing against the topic.

Trying to do this in a blameless way can sometimes work. By having the conversation with a wider group and discussing the issue in a generic way, no one feels singled out and the negative topic can be discussed without turning to an argument. This works if the group as a whole is receptive to the idea and is willing to put their collective ego aside to improve things for everyone. It helps to prepare those that know where the problem area is, in advance of the meeting, to ask for their support and backing to drive the conversation in a positive direction. This can often feel disingenuous, like planting someone in a crowd but it is for the collective good of all involved to progress without unnecessary argument.

Where the group is unwilling to set their ego aside for the collective good, then the conversation needs to be brought to the individuals. This requires an equal ego dismount at the outset of the conversation, so that it does not become a defensive argument. There is no one size fits all to this, each individual acts differently, as we are back to the initial point, everyone is different. So it may take multiple arguments to get to a point where you can have a conversation with the person. As long as you are both willing to stick with it and not take it too personally, it should be possible to come out the other end, able to have more conversations.

Writing != Conversing

Bringing this back to the original thought of using writing as means to think. I still find it incredibly useful. Writing this enabled me to think through numerous interactions and how I have conducted myself in them, looking at ways I can improve myself. It is a solitary form of thinking though.

As I watch more of Peterson’s conversations, there is one thing that becomes obvious, (mainly as they are actually discussing it), they are all having long conversations with one another. They’re taking their time to work through their thoughts, in person, while the other person patiently waits and works through it with them (or not in a few cases).

I would love to have the time to do this in a work context, sit down with a handful of people for 2–3 hours and just have a conversation. Work through some thoughts, figure out where we are going, what we are doing. Maybe nothing productive comes of it, so what? In an agile world this should be compulsory, failure is always an option, not every story makes it to production. However we seem to take the lesser part of the practices, squeeze more into our iterations, go faster, be more efficient, plan less, talk less.

Maybe I just need to make it another backlog item; “As a human, I’d like to have a conversation, so that I can get some things straight in my head — 1 SP”.

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Multidimensional Engineer working in HPE with an interest in many things.

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Alan Duggan

Alan Duggan

Multidimensional Engineer working in HPE with an interest in many things.

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