October 29, 2020
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Build a more inclusive workplace by promoting ‘better arguments’

Healthy and productive debate with your coworkers honors a diversity of opinions and can kick start innovation.

Learning how to have better, more effective, arguments in the workplace can transform how you make decisions. Image via PeopleImages/Getty

When was the last time you had an argument at work? Fears of disrupting the mood, your ideas being shot down, or even being summoned by human resources may have stopped you.

But when everyone on the team has a go-along-to-get-along attitude, the status quo remains firmly intact and the potential window for innovation narrows.

It might be difficult to begin voicing your disagreements, but one way to start is by learning how to argue better. By engaging in spirited, productive debate, organizations, teams, and individuals can grow stronger and generate better ideas.

Initiatives like The Better Arguments Project are working to bridge divides and create solutions by teaching Americans how to have more effective, healthier arguments. The initiative is a collaboration between The Aspen Institute, the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, and Allstate. It was designed for use in all aspects of community life, from the classroom to the dinner table—and, yes, the office, too.

American’s are spending more time than ever at work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American worked 8.5 hours a day in 2019, and there’s evidence that that number is creeping up in 2020 due to changes in how we work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’re also increasingly polarized. While this is often framed in terms of partisanship, a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “affective polarization” is intensifying. This term is used to describe our attitudes towards people with different beliefs—and in the U.S. it is alarmingly negative.

“One reason we think of people with different opinions more negatively is because we don’t have the opportunity to productively engage each other around these different opinions,” said Caroline Hopper, associate director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program.

To facilitate that kind of productive engagement, The Better Arguments Project has developed five main principles for constitutes a better argument:

1. Take winning off the table
2. Prioritize relationships and listen passionately
3. Pay attention to context
4. Embrace vulnerability
5. Make room to transform

“It’s not a bad thing to talk about difficult topics. It’s a bad thing to talk about difficult topics if we don’t have the right tools to do so,” Hopper said. “We need to focus on building tools, not avoiding those conversations.”

These principles aren’t just theoretically nice. Columbia University’s Difficult Conversations Lab has studied what happens when people sit down to talk about a polarizing topic. Researchers found when that conversation is structured to encourage complexity and nuance, the more tolerant the conversation tends to be.

Here’s how you can put the principles of a better argument into action in the workplace:

Create a culture of bravery, not a culture of winning

An important aspect of the Better Arguments Project is to provide an opportunity to allow people who don’t often have a voice to speak up.

“We can use better arguments as a tool to actively demonstrate to employees that their feedback is being heard,” Hopper said. “It’s a way to provide an open and brave space where employees can express their feedback and the leader can then make more nuanced, more informed, and more strategic decisions based on having the full breadth of information.”

Managers can create a brave space by encouraging employees to challenge ideas, asking exploratory questions that invite dissent, and taking “winning” off the table.

This last point might seem like a contradiction, especially in a highly competitive business environment. “There’s a better way to come out ahead in debate than imposing your will on others and narrowly defining a win,” said Glenn Shapiro, President of Personal Property-Liability at Allstate. “Taking that approach might make you feel like you’re achieving your objectives. But really, you end up missing opportunities to secure an even better outcome for yourself and others.”

"In the workplace you can't avoid these arguments. … So the question is, do you use them to build community? Or do you use them to silence?" — Roger Brooks, CEO of Facing History and Ourselves

Follow the path of unconventional leadership

Roger Brooks, CEO of Facing History and Ourselves, points to leaders such as the late Congressman John Lewis as an example that modern leaders can emulate.

“He decided to leave home to go and engage and fight for civil rights. He ended up fighting for them for his entire lifetime. Throughout his career, he embodied the Better Arguments principles of embracing vulnerability and making room for transformation,” Brooks said of the civil rights icon. “If you’ve heard him speak before, he has said that it was all about how he was open to being changed in the movement and how he was offering that same change to others. It was all about his vulnerability.”

Brooks also cites Rena Finder, a Schindler’s list survivor of the Holocaust who has shared her story with young people, as an example of a leader using the principles of a better argument to create positive change.

“She has never stopped telling her story. She wants young people to hear it because she thinks history really matters. She’s embraced this idea of prioritizing relationships,” explained Brooks. “When she goes into a classroom, she spends the first quarter of the time she’s there establishing a relationship with the people she’s talking to—both children and adults. To her, that human relationship she’s going to establish, it is going to be more important than almost anything else that she does.”

Change the way you do meetings

Whether you’re sitting around a conference table, huddling up in a warehouse, or catching up over Zoom, there are ways to invite healthy disagreement into meetings and make them more productive. Brooks recommends a process called contracting. This is when team members establish the ground rules that everyone will adhere to before the discussion begins.

“Some of the best contracting I’ve ever seen are the five principles of a better argument,” said Brooks, “Especially the idea of taking winning off the table and making room to transform.”

He says the process of contracting has become an integral part of Facing History’s culture.

“In the workplace you can’t avoid these arguments. … So the question is, do you use them to build community? Or do you use them to silence?” said Brooks. “I think the smarter thing is to teach people; give them the tools and the capabilities to have these conversations and arguments. What you end up within is a much stronger team in any project.”

If you’re looking for other ways to allow multiple perspectives to thrive in a meeting, Fast Company recommends maximizing interaction by putting announcements in an email, sharing leadership duties among multiple people, and collectively producing notes.

Tools you can use to promote healthy debate in the office:

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.