Dialogue and Debate

p1020941-2There is an old joke about a judge presiding over a legal case. He listens to the plaintiff’s eloquent argument, thinks for a moment, and says with authority, “You are right.”

“Wait a minute,” cries the defendant. “You didn’t hear my side.” So the judge listens to the defendant’s equally eloquent argument, thinks for a moment, and says, “You are right.”

“Wait a minute,” cries the clerk. “They cannot be both right!”

The judge thinks for a moment and says, “You are right too.”

This may be a joke about a judge who fails to do his job; but I see it as a joke about a judge attempting to create a dialogue where a debate is supposed to take place. Though it may not be appropriate for this particular situation, I would propose that this is a more admirable position than the opposite one – creating debate where there should be dialogue instead.

In the midst of our current heated political climate, the fire is forging some irons but also melting some important relationships. But it’s not just American politics that can create this effect – it can be work politics too. I have witnessed what often starts as simple discussion about differing points of view turn into hostile, vicious, backstabbing arguments. The sad thing is that it happens between team members – people who are supposed to work together and have each other’s backs. Suddenly, for one reason or another, they find themselves stuck at an impasse that prevents constructive discussion and healthy idea sharing.

We like debate. Debate simplifies our thinking process. It separates the winners from the losers, right from wrong, good from bad, guilty from not guilty. And we love to win, to be right, to be proven victorious, and to take revenge on the guilty. It feels good.

A debate works well in zero-sum cases: such as in elections when only one candidate can win, or in the courtroom when the defendant can be either guilty or not guilty. It works well when the debaters are experts in their fields, familiar with all the facts that support and oppose their positions, when they are eloquent in presenting their cases, and when the goal is not to convince one another, but to win the audience – the voters or the jury.

A team that must stand shoulder-to-shoulder cannot think in terms of debate. Debate puts blinders on its members’ eyes. It demands dichotomy, sheds light only on the two opposing solutions, and paints them in black and white, while the best possible solution for the team will likely lay somewhere in the gray area where the debaters refuse to go.

Sifting in the gray area for the best solution requires self-restraint and counter-intuitive thinking. Team members may have different experiences, different communication styles, and certainly more than just two opposing points of view. No member can qualify as the expert, and there is no audience to convince other than the team members themselves.

A good team must rely on their collective intelligence to find solutions. They must work to build a bridge between differences and understand how each team member differs on the interpretation of facts or what approaches to use to solve a problem. They must create a shared understanding, a shared mental model, and reach a conclusion or a decision that all team members can support.

Yet, the heat of the discussion sometimes pushes people out of dialogue and into a debate, into the more intuitive mode of interaction when faced with disagreement. To avoid that, the team must have another, special agreement that rises above the discussion. They all have to accept that every team member’s opinion is legitimate, every expressed feeling is true, and every person brings a good level of intelligence, working to the best of their ability to achieve a win-win outcome.

Sometimes we cannot reach an agreement. If the lack of agreement does not affect the decision, we can drop it and file it under the team’s idiosyncrasy. If the issue requires an agreement, and the team cannot reach one through deep discussion and drilling into the issues, then a facilitation expert or higher authority direction may be required.

Avoiding debate should not be restricted to the work the team must perform. It should apply to any discussion in which the elements of a good debate do not apply, and for teams, those rules rarely apply.


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