When I was about ten I joined the school debating team. For the next three years my teammates and I would host or travel to competing schools where a battle of wits would ensue. An empty classroom was our battleground and words, rebuttals and reason were our weapons. We wouldn’t know the subject until we arrived and, even more importantly, we didn’t know whether we would be arguing as the affirmative or negative until an hour before the debate.
This meant that from a young age I learnt to leave my predisposed opinions to one side and be ready to play devil’s advocate. I learnt to convince a panel of judges of the rationality and superiority of an argument, which until an hour previous, I had rejected. Sometimes arguing against my beliefs only worked to strengthen them, other times the structure of the debating battleground made it okay to challenge my opinions, open my mind, and consider things from an alternative perspective.
Whilst I stopped partaking in official debates after seventh grade, I’ve never really stopped debating.
I watched a brilliant TED talk yesterday called Dare to Disagree by Margaret Heffernan. She spoke about the benefits of conflict and disagreement in all kinds of relationships, both professional and personal. During her talk she says, “It’s a fantastic model of collaboration — thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking.”*
And there’s the rub. To truly appreciate and benefit from conflict, we need a paradigm shift – we need to stop seeing constructive disagreement as ‘unseemly’, ‘impolite’, ‘argumentative’ and ‘rude’, and start seeing it as a means of collaborative progress.
This isn’t an easy thing to do when we instinctively avoid conflict. We should be encouraged to disagree with our colleagues or boss, with our friends, with our family and with our partners. What we need to keep in mind when doing so is that it’s not enough to simply change our perspectives on disagreement, we also need to change the way in which we disagree.
I’ve been in a relationship with my partner Marcus for four years now and we’ve lived together for over three of them. During that time we’ve had many conversations that soon turned heated. Sentences became louder, hands started flailing and at the end of it we would both be left frustrated and I’d be fuming that he could be so blind to a perspective that I thought was obvious.
One evening after reading a book, Marcus tactfully summarised a “very interesting point” which he’d just read. He was explaining how dangerous a certain word is when used in conversation. It was a word that I soon realised I was guilty of saying, that we were both guilty of saying, and that was the culprit of most of our frustration with one-another in conversations. The word was “but”.
What the book explained was that the word “but” instantly nullifies anything you, or the other person, has said prior. It’s the easiest way of absolving yourself of blame or responsibility (“Yes I did eat your chocolate, but it was silly to leave it on the counter”), and it’s also the quickest way of rejecting someone’s ideas or opinions in favour of your own (A: “I think the purple makes a perfect background” B: “Yeah… but yellow looks better with the red text”); It’s the exact opposite of collaboration.
If in a discussion we put forward what we believe to be a valid point and it’s responded to with “Yeah… but”, it’s an instant signal that the other person is instantly rejecting our input, which immediately results in our defences going up. How do these defences manifest? In many cases, and certainly in mine, it manifested in what I like to call “a war of buts”. Without realising it we would become so caught up in being defending our beliefs that we started cutting each other off with more and more “but” arguments. In doing so, we forgot to actually listen and consider the other person’s perspective. We wouldn’t probe into the reasons the other person thought the way they did, we wouldn’t try to reach a compromise, we would just keep ‘butting’ and would often sway off topic to the point of arguing about something neither of us cared about at all.
Here I’d like to propose an important distinction between arguing and debating: Arguing is defensive conflict. Debating and disagreeing doesn’t have to be argumentative. It can, and should, be collaborative. By listening to one another and actually considering each other’s perspectives, you can instead build on ideas together, and draw attention to areas others may not have considered, without nullifying each other’s argument. This is what Margaret refers to in her quote above as “thinking”.
My partner and I have gotten much better at this. Ever since I became aware of the dangers of “but” I made a conscious decision to try to stop using the word (that also means substitutes like “however” which do the same thing). Now, whenever I find myself wanting to say “but”, I have to think of a better way to phrase what I want to say. By simply thinking it means I put my ideas into the context of what the person I’m talking to has previously said. Often, this means building on ideas and both coming to a sound conclusion. Sometimes one of us will be swayed to the other’s way of thinking, and other times we continue to disagree and learn to be okay with that.
I believe that just like back in a school debating room, we can build a framework where we are consciously open-minded and willing to have our beliefs challenged. I believe that by daring to disagree, and by facilitating an environment where we welcome others to disagree with us we become better listeners, better workers, better partners and better collaborators.