Debate In The Workplace: Building Constructive Conversations
Have you recently participated in a conversation where you felt your perspective and ideas were not being heard and you left feeling deflated? A progressive and healthy workplace welcomes and encourages debate as a method to explore bold ideas and work towards better solutions. But in this polarised world we find ourselves, have we lost the ability to have constructive debates? The degradation of this critical skill could hinder progress and keep workplaces from achieving momentous things.
In order to keep debate in your workplace alive and healthy, Here are some guidelines you can follow for more constructive and transformative conversations.
Nurture your relationships
The outcome of your conversations are largely affected by the strength of your relationship. The stronger your relationship, the better the conversation. Stephen Covey, author of 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People', claims that “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”
Adopt a scout mindset
A scout is responsible for observing and gathering information. We should approach debate in the same way: to explore the topic and get to the heart of the issue. Too many of us jump straight into battle mode, defending our ideas and views.
Julia Galef, author of 'The Scout Mindset', states that “If we want to get things right more often, we should train ourselves to have a ‘scout’ mindset. Unlike the soldier, a scout’s goal isn’t to defend one side over the other. It’s to go out, survey the territory and come back with as accurate a map as possible. Regardless of what they hope to be the case, above all, the scout wants to know what’s actually true.”
By adopting a scout mindset during debate, you are engaged in truth-seeking and will explore and understand the topic in greater depth than if you were to fiercely defend your point of view. A good debate is a collaborative effort where you exchange ideas and explore the topic together. With the scout mindset, there are no winners or losers, there is just greater understanding and exchange of knowledge.
Listening is a skill that often gets overlooked; however, it’s one we should value and nurture as it facilitates productive conversations. Stephen Covey points out that “People don’t listen to understand. They listen to reply.” Actively listen, probe, reflect, and validate your colleague's beliefs and feelings and you will be surprised at how quickly you become allies.
Discover motivators and find common ground
Do you know what motivates you and your colleague? Many of us wade through life without really understanding why we do what we do. Often our motivations stem from unconscious beliefs and experiences such as behaviours modelled by our family, intergenerational trauma and significant life experiences. German philosopher and educator, Dr Eduard Spranger, identified six core attitudes from which people view the world. Understanding these attitudes and which of them motivates you and your colleague will help you better relate to one another and work towards a shared goal.
Aesthetic: A drive for balance, harmony and form. A high aesthetic score indicates a preoccupation with experience and the environment.
Theoretical: A drive for truth and knowledge. A high theoretical score indicates a preoccupation with rationality, strategy and problem solving.
Utilitarian: A drive for security and accumulation of wealth. A high utilitarian score indicates a preoccupation with practicality, money and business.
Social: A drive for connection and expression. A high social score indicates a preoccupation with community, altruism and relationships.
Individualistic: A drive for power, leadership and influence. A high individualistic score indicates a preoccupation with hierarchical structures and the navigation of power structures.
Traditional: A drive for structure and order. A high traditional score indicates a preoccupation with rules, regulations and principles for living.
Once you have uncovered which attitudes motivate you and your colleague, focus on those shared attitudes and goals as this will help propel the argument forward.
Understand the limits of your knowledge
Mark Twain famously wrote “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Great leaders clearly understand their strengths and their limits. A leader who is self-aware and willing to admit their weaknesses is a more authentic leader, and authenticity is a powerful tool. Understanding the limits of your knowledge and welcoming support from your team members facilitates the exchange of ideas and perspectives resulting in better solutions. The same goes when engaging in a debate. Recognise the limits of your knowledge and listen to your colleague. You never know, you may learn something new!
“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are - or, as we are conditioned to see it.”, asserts author Stephen Covey.
Everyone, no matter our background, education or experience, is susceptible to biases. Cognitive bias is an inevitable part of the human condition. However, it is important that we recognise and challenge our biases before they negatively impact decision-making and workplace outcomes. When we’re unaware of our biases, we are more susceptible to misinterpreting or ignoring accurate information because it conflicts with what we know.
There are 4 common cognitive biases we should all be aware of:
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that supports our existing beliefs and avoid evidence that is contrary to those beliefs. In debate, be open to ideas and information that may not support your existing beliefs.
Mere exposure effect
This type of bias refers to the increased preference for opinions, people or information the more you are exposed to it. While debating, consider whether your ideas or opinions are founded on solid evidence or whether they are based on exposure. Be careful of what information you are unconsciously absorbing on a daily basis as this can distort your view.
In-group bias refers to how people are more likely to support or believe someone within their own social group. If you are being particularly distrusting of your colleague, stop to consider if it’s because you perceive them to be outside your social group or status.
This type of bias refers to the tendency to rely on information that we can quickly and easily recall and to ignore alternative information or ideas. This mental shortcut can distort our understanding of a topic.
Inspire curiosity and watch your seeds bloom
We often consider a conversation to be productive or successful if we have won the argument or persuaded the other person to adopt our point of view. However, this outcome does not necessarily denote success. You may observe a shift in your colleagues' perspective, but don’t be fooled by their silent acquiescence. A more authentic and realistic outcome is that you have inspired curiosity. The first conversation on any difficult or sensitive topic may not always lead to a change in perspective, but if you have cultivated an attitude of curiosity and openness to alternative perspectives and ideas then both you and your colleague can part on good terms. Perhaps this curiosity has flourished by the time you meet for your next conversation. Famous author and poet Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Judge each day not by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.”
In order to have constructive and transformative conversations in the workplace it’s advantageous to follow some simple guidelines; Know yourself, listen, sympathise with your colleague, explore the topic together and inspire curiosity. Collective knowledge and the exploration and exchange of ideas and perspectives can help us grow and achieve momentous things if we are willing to leave our ego at the door and welcome truth and understanding.