So I have to come clean in this blog post. I’ve, until very recently, NEVER had a great relationship with the dentist. The dentist, for me, was an exercise in pain, frustration and failure. Our family dentist when I was growing up in Las Vegas was less than stellar (even used temporary filling materials for permanent fillings!), and one of the unfortunate outcomes of that time was I never really learned good dental care.
That led to such fun activities as four-quadrant scaling of my gums (yeah, that’s as bad as it sounds), damaged teeth and several crowns. (I came to believe that dentists were simply people who had failed in their original career goal of professional torturer.) The odd part of the story is that it wasn’t until very late in the game (in my case, my mid-thirties) before any dentist sat me down and said “hey, Erik, this doesn’t have to be torture. Here’s some simple things you can do to make the dentist a breeze AND have great teeth.”
We need to take care of our teeth. Most of us get that! We also need to argue/do constructive and productive conflict for healthy relationships and teams, and many of us DON’T get that. We need to do that in relationships of any real depth or importance, personal or professional. And, like dental care, it isn’t complicated. If we don’t it can (and usually is) painful, frustrating as hell and fraught with failure. If we DO it can open the door to some remarkable outcomes.
The First Benefit of Argument – Becoming a World-Class Listener
Right out of the gate learning to do conflict skillfully will, by definition, make us better listeners. After training and working in this field for more than 30 years I can say I’m still amazed at how many unnecessary, brutalizing and damaging fights result from poor listening.
We can’t argue successfully if we’re not listening (and not being listened to). One reason this is true is that we can rarely let go of what we’re upset or angry about if we don’t get heard! We need to have the sense the other person is really in the room and really paying attention. On the other hand if get the sense that we are being heard it can do wonders to de-escalate us, gear us down and put us in a place where we can work out the problem.
Another reason is that we clean up a LOT of misunderstandings and assumptions when we both listen well and insist on being heard. If I had a nickel for every argument I’ve witnessed (and/or participated in) where there really wasn’t a problem, just a misunderstanding or mistaken assumption, I’d own one or two south Pacific islands.
Still another is the remarkable growth of trust that develops between people who take the time to seriously listen to each other. How many of us are walking on eggshells, trying to anticipate the other person’s reactions, not confident that if trouble starts with that person that you can trust their reactions or their understanding? Demonstrating a listening attitude makes conflict both much more useful and more safe for the participants.
The Second Benefit of Argument – Honing your Thinking Skills
From a business perspective (although it applies to personal relationships as well) one of the greatest benefits of skillful argument is it makes us THINK better. It is both cliché and an open secret that we easily get stuck in our own assumptions and thinking grooves. Conflict, well-managed, can shake us loose to new perspectives and new understandings.
I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve been struggling to both learn better marketing skills for my business AND, at the same time, have been convinced it was an arcane and mysterious art that I would never master. It took not one but two arguments with an old friend for me to “bump up” out of my habitual thinking and look at marketing with fresh eyes. That in turn led to some research on my part, and guess what? After 17 years I’m beginning to demystify marketing for myself.
There are entire blog posts (heck, books) to be written (and have been written) on this subject. We think better when we invite multiple perspectives to the table, and we think better still when we wrestle with each other about those different perspectives.
The Third Benefit of Argument – Becoming a Better Drawer of Boundaries
There’s no way to engage fruitfully in conflict if we are unable to draw the personal boundaries we need. SO MUCH conflict sparks off from the unwillingness or inability to simply, firmly, clearly say “no, this doesn’t work for me” or “what I really need is X” or “I can do or give you this, but I can’t do or give you that.”
We are not taught to draw boundaries. We are taught (many of us) that an outright no is selfish, mean, cruel, you name it. We hint, we suggest, we send non-verbal messages like sighs or eye-rolls, but we don’t just say we need and want. And of course too many fights start because we were eye-rolling or sighing instead of just saying where we stood, what we wanted.
Conflict forces us to the truth, to the honest response. In fact conflict is often the result of our frustration that other people are not respecting us or our boundaries, and we finally blow up from that frustration. But even that blowing up can pave the way for a frank and direct discussion, and as a result better communication and a stronger, healthier relationship.
How to Get Started
I’m all about baby steps these days for those folks that are willing but nervous about actually thinking about engaging in a difficult conversation/argument/potential fight. These suggestions take a little practice and thinking, but ANYONE can do them - and they are easier than our fears make them out to be.
Helpful Suggestion #1: Pull the person you want to have the conversation with aside and ask to set a time to sit down and have them tell you why they are upset or frustrated. Then, when you do it, LISTEN. Just listen until they feel 100% heard. THEN decide what you want to say and have them do the same thing for you. THEN assess the situation. Notice you have yet to argue about anything! You’re just listening and being listened to. Is there still a need to wrestle? You may be surprised…
Helpful Suggestion #2: If there is a need to wrestle ask them what one ground rule might be that would make them more comfortable doing that wrestling. Then you offer one of your own. Holy crap, now you’ve opened a dialogue and established some ground rules. You’re halfway to a functional, healthy, productive argument – IF it’s needed.
Next up – why argument is so important for teams and leaders.