Having a disagreement? Statements vs Questions

We all have disagreements – ranging from little tiffs all the way up to major blowouts. And they are going to continue to happen, but how you respond to it, what you say or don’t say, can either turn it into a productive conversation or can turn it into a major fallout.

I have never minded conflict. I enjoyed the odd blowout argument and heated debate in order to get my point across. After one particular battle, I was reflecting on my “win” when I realized I had missed the point. I was debating simply to get my point across and totally missed out on the chance to collaborate and probably come out with a better product. I also typically at that point had said something that disengaged the other person and damaged our relationship. Not the shining moment and had initially thought.

I was frustrated by my natural (sarcastic) tendency to escalate conflict when arguing. I searched for better responses. What I found was the art of questions.

The 4 Goals of Arguing

Statements to Reduce FrustrationWe usually argue because we don’t agree with the other person’s position. Either their viewpoint either doesn’t match up with what we believe or we are somehow threatened by the implications of it. But there are other reasons why we engage in conflict.. Here are four common goals of arguing:
1. We want to persuade them we are right.
2. We want to persuade them they are wrong, even though we don’t have a better answer.
3. We argue just because we’re irritated and want to tick-off the other person.
4. We want to understand what the other person thinks, but don’t know how to discuss it without it becoming an argument.

The perfect storm is when both people do the first three at the same time! The first three are a matter of awareness and ego (if you are struggling with this, I highly recommend the book Crucial Conversations!), but #4 is a skillset that every good leader needs to learn.

Argue with Statements

Think about a recent disagreement that you have had. Was most of what was said statements? Arguing with statements tends to escalate the conflict. Each statement tries to one-up the other person’s. More facts, more history, more “you said,” and if those don’t work, more emotion and volume.

Here is an example during a meeting:
Jeff: “No one will go for that plan.”
Samantha: “Yes they will. I’ve already spoken to several people who agree this is the best way to go.”
Jeff: “We tried something like that before. It didn’t work!”
Samantha: “Just because you weren’t able to pull it off, don’t block it now.”
Jeff: “It wasn’t my fault! It was a bad idea in the first place. And I don’t want to waste more resources on it now.”

Do you see how the statements increased the tension, defensiveness, and volume? We think we’re making our case with confidence, but as this example shows, neither person made any progress in persuading the other. More importantly, the desired outcome of the situation were lost in the emotional battle that took center stage.

Argue With Questions

A different approach is to try persuading with questions instead of statements. Ask questions to understand the other person’s thinking. When I do this I find myself agreeing with many of the intentions, motivations, and some of the how-to of the person’s idea. I’m usually able to pinpoint the specific point I don’t agree with and discuss that, while affirming the rest.Questions
Let’s try that meeting again:
Jeff: “No one will go for that plan.”
Samantha: “What part of it don’t you think they will go for?”
Jeff: “Well, we tried this a couple years ago and it didn’t work.”
Samantha: “What similarities do you see between this plan and what was done before?”
Jeff: “It’s the same approach to motivating people – give them more money, new job titles, a couple of parties.”
Samantha: “Why do you believe these things previously didn’t cause change?”
Jeff: “Because those things try to cover up people’s dissatisfaction with management. People are treated poorly, taken for granted, and blamed when things don’t go well. A little money and a party won’t change that.”
Samantha: “What would?”
Jeff: “We need to work with management to shift their attitudes and behaviors toward employees. That’s where I see leverage for change.”
Samantha: “I agree with you Robert regarding the need for management’s attitudes to shift toward employees. May I clarify a couple points of the plan in light of what you said?”
Jeff: “Sure.”
Do see the difference? By asking questions Samantha was able to engage Jeff in a discussion and understand the basis for his objection to the plan. Samantha ignored, for the moment, several points where Jeff misrepresented the plan. She found common ground with Jeff and began to build on it. By asking questions Samantha understood Jeff better, and Jeff, having been listened to, was more willing to listen to Samantha.
In this example Jeff could have asked questions of Samantha. Rather than saying, “No one will go for this plan,” he could have asked questions to find out how Samantha’s plan was different than what they did in the past. Temporarily suspending judgment he could have asked Samantha:
• “What leads you to this conclusion?”
• “What results do you think this plan will achieve?”
• “In forming this plan, what factors did you consider?”

Breakthrough in conflict comes when we start asking questions and listening to the other person. You have to ask honest questions to understand them, not to manipulate them. Honest questions de-escalate emotions and defensiveness.
Once we actually hear the other person, we find common ground, remember what the point of our discussion was in the first place, that we are on the same team and looking to solve the same problem.

Now, the two of you are communicating instead of arguing. Look at you go!

Do you have a tactic that has helped you during a disagreement?