The importance of a good argument

My wife and I had been dating for almost a year. I had known for some time that she was “the one” and I was getting ready to propose. I met up with a friend for lunch who was asking me how things were going. After sharing with him that I was planning to propose soon, he asked me a surprising question: “Do you and your girlfriend argue well?”

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It was an important question and I had to give it some real thought and reflect on it before responding. I had learned from reading books like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni that conflict can bring teams closer together. Lencioni also writes about how you can have positive conflict when you have trust.

Further, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his weekly covenant and conversation series, teaches that, “there is something holy about argument.” In one edition of the series, called “God Loves Those Who Argue,” he writes:

In Judaism there is something holy about argument. Why so? Only God can see the totality of truth. For us, mere mortals who can see only fragments of the truth at any one time, there is an irreducible multiplicity of perspectives. We see reality now one way, now another…The different voices of priest and prophet…philosopher and mystic, historian and poet, each capture something essential about the spiritual life.

Further, Rabbi Sacks describes two kinds of arguing:

  • Arguing for the sake of victory
  • Arguing for the sake of truth

Arguing for the sake of victory is all about winning. It involves listening to respond instead of listening to understand. It’s winning the war of “one-liners” and trying to destroy your opponent while trying to simultaneously discredit his argument.

Arguing for the sake of truth is essentially the opposite. It’s arguing to make something better, to reveal truth that comes from a variety of perspectives and views. It means putting the pieces of truth together from the same side of the table. It is arguing to make something better.

Arguing for the sake of truth even glorifies the non-prevailing side of an argument because it helps reveal truth and expands the knowledge of all parties.

In Rabbi Sacks’ covenant and conversation about, “The First Populist”, he writes:

What matters…is why the argument was undertaken and how it was conducted. An argument not for the sake of Heaven is one that is undertaken for the sake of victory. An argument for the sake of Heaven is undertaken for the sake of truth. When the aim is victory…both sides are diminished…But when the aim is truth, both sides gain. To be defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory.

Recognizing the merits of arguing for the sake of truth, how do we, as leaders, create the environment to encourage arguments of this kind?

To answer the question, it is important for us to be aware of the obstacles to doing so and then taking steps to overcome them.

First, psychological science tells us that power is inversely related to perspective taking. A study by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer has shown that leaders are more likely to prioritize their own perspective on issues. Listening to others first, before speaking, is one way to put other people first. Often times, if the leader speaks first, the rest of the group may tend to go along with him so as not to seem like they disagree.

Second, leaders run fast. Sometimes we believe we have to do something or believe we already know the right answer. People on our team who challenge the leader can be seen as a nuisance or an impediment to progress. Leaders must fight the urge to move too fast. Good leaders know when to slow down, encourage discussion, and ask good questions of the team to uncover “truth”.

Third, some individuals are simply less comfortable with conflict. Developing the muscle of moderating a disagreement within our teams can help us get more comfortable.

Fourth, we may believe we have more of a complete picture than anyone else on our teams because of our leadership position. We take for granted what our team may know relative to what we know. Being aware of this tendency is crucial because it is often untrue. Just because a leader has more of a “bigger picture” does not mean that the picture is a complete one. Anyone who has been through a merger or acquisition knows that often the people who execute the deal do not really understand how to achieve the desired synergies in implementation. Implementation is typically where mergers and acquisitions fail.

Finally, we must commit to practice speaking up and demonstrating the desired behavior for our teams. Speaking up, respectfully and in pursuit of truth, will show others that they can be comfortable sharing their perspective even if it differs from the rest of the group. Encouraging arguments for the sake of truth not only contribute to reaching the best possible outcomes, but also helps to build the team’s trust.

To answer the original question, yes – my wife and I do argue well. We listen to each other and resolve conflicts with a spirit of love and trying to make things better. Arguing is one of the best ways we get to understand each other and, at the end, through our love and respect, we always win.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Arguments for the sake of truth can be productive and important to reaching the best conclusion for your organization. Leaders that foster an environment where these types of arguments take place can encourage teamwork, trust, and positive outcomes.