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Listen to Those You Disagree With

Let’s have a good argument. When I was a kid, I loved to argue. I would take the other side of any subject just to get into a good, spirited exchange with my parents, schoolmates, teachers, and friends. I think I enjoyed the sport of arguing, but I never really gave any thought to why I liked it so much. And I am pretty sure my parents, teachers, and friends did not enjoy it as much as I did!

My parents and siblings would say, “When you grow up (more like “if” really), you should be a lawyer, as if all lawyers do is argue. And maybe that was a good idea, except for the fact that I did not have the patience for academics, and becoming a lawyer seemed like a lot of work just so I could fulfill my passion for a rousing disagreement.

What then? The answer was easy. I always wanted to be a business man like my dad. An entrepreneur, really. Although I would not have known what that word meant when I was just a kid.

So, you ask, how does an argumentative personality or style help you become a better business person? Would it not be more advantageous to get along or go along with other people and not rock the boat too much? Good questions. I can tell you that in my earlier days in business, arguing or disagreeing got me into some serious hot water.

I can recall one instance when I very nearly lost an important customer over a disagreement. Of course, I was convinced I was right! The trouble was, at the time, it was important for me to win the customer over to my point of view. And in the process I totally disregarded the customer’s position and did not even really listen to him.

I was so emotionally convinced of my “rightness” that I could not even hear another view! And I got angry when the customer did not just fold up like a cheap suit and agree with me. How dare they?

This is when somebody said to me out of some kind of twisted popular wisdom, “Well Doug, the customer is always right”. What a load of crap I thought. After all, I am right!

The truth is, it isn’t that the customer is always right. It’s more about the fact that there are many ways to look at a situation to get the best result for everyone. That’s the beauty of an argument when both sides are really willing to listen. Therein lies the rub, my friends. If, like me, you still like a good argument, then let’s figure out how to have a productive debate vs. an argument. Arguing isn’t about potentially creating enemies. It’s actually about looking curiously at a situation to figure out what is best and fair for everyone. Make sense?

Here we go:

First and foremost – do not argue using email or text. Hearing the other person’s voice and observing their body language humanizes the process of debate. So, get your facts lined up and organized in a logical way to allow you to present your argument unemotionally. Start to think about what points somebody arguing against you might make. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you disagree with. Focus on shared reality, and not different personalities.

Be truly open to listening to a conflicting point of view. Listening carefully will bring to light some common ground between opposing viewpoints. Identify the common ground and share it as a starting point to find possible solutions.

In the dispute I had with that customer way back when, I should have considered the idea that I might be wrong before even talking to the customer. I should not have become emotionally attached to my view. I should have practiced arguing the issue from both sides before starting the discussion! I should have asked for agreement from the outset that our goal was to resolve a dispute in a way that did not harm an otherwise positive relationship. That was our common ground and I missed the opportunity to establish it.

Recently, we engaged in an exercise at Cooper called Start, Stop, Continue. It was really fun to think about and list the things we needed to start, stop, and continue doing to be successful around a specific initiative.

It occurs to me there are things we all need to start and stop doing to become more successful at having more productive exchanges to create better solutions and positive relationships that gain from friendly debate, such as:

  • Start to wonder why you were so sure in the first place
  • Start to wonder what it would take to change your mind
  • Stop talking
  • Start listening
  • Stop dismissing
  • Start persuading
  • Stop shutting down
  • Start opening our minds

And one final note, always, right up until you take your last breath:

Continue Learning.

Be Better … Better is Good!

Doug Dougherty

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