Do we know how to argue anymore?
The Brexit years won’t be looked back on with any fondness. The scale and complexity of Brexit - with the most far-reaching consequences of any vote in the history of British politics - has demanded cool heads, maturity and open conversations. And perhaps most of all, a willingness to deal with unknown territory, where there aren’t any simple right or wrong answers.
Instead we’ve had rift upon rift, between and across political parties. Parliamentary debate has been compared to pantomime. Police have needed to step in to protect politicians giving interviews outside the House of Commons from abuse and violence.
It’s not just the convoluted nature of Brexit that’s to blame. There’s a bunch of 21st century issues around arguments, our ability to admit we can be wrong, and deal in general with conversations that turn ‘difficult’. An argument is meant to be an exchange of different views, not a row. It’s the start of a process of expressing ourselves, listening and, if need be, adjusting our perspective based on what we’ve learnt.
Too often, an argument is just the last resort, what happens when normal conversation breaks down. In the workplace this mostly means employees do all they can to keep conversations smooth, even if that means not mentioning problems, bottling up alternative ideas or frustrations. When arguments occur they are an eruption, quick to involve anger, a sense of injustice, a reaching out to authority.
Managers in particular need to have the skills to make difficult conversations a positive part of our working lives.
1. Always being the adult
All conversations need to be based on honesty. Managers need to always feel able to express and be open about both their thoughts and feelings. They need to have a sense of benevolence - to genuinely want the best for the organisation and other individuals as well as themselves. And courage - essentially - to be willing to initiate sometimes awkward situations, to speak honestly and be vulnerable personally for the sake of dealing with situations that are harming other people.
2. Facing up to difficult conversations
Managers need to decide actively that a conversation is needed - not bounced into it by circumstances or emotions. They should plan what they want to accomplish: ’what do I need to talk about? what do I really want for myself, for them, for the relationship?’. And set out a clear purpose with benefits for both sides: if a conversation feels risky to a manager, it will be feeling risky to the other person too.
3. Not relying on assumptions
Senior staff can be tripped up by believing their experience means they already have the answers. They need to ask exploratory questions and show a meaningful interest in what an employee thinks, believes, fears and wants. Curiosity - letting people know they have been heard and understood - is a really strong working relationship building tool. It also gives managers the deeper information needed to help with the problem-solving. Managers need to be able to recognise their version of events is a mix of fact, fiction and assumptions, and separate what they know, believe, and what’s uncertain, before they open their mouth.
4. Getting involved
When managers are tight-lipped, looking only to protect their position, the employees around them will do the same. In other words, when there is a problem, managers need to avoid appearing detached and superior, making the issue only about the employee. They should be asking themselves: “how might I have contributed to this situation?” Talking about their contribution immediately opens up a dialogue and makes the member of the team more likely to be open, constructive and listen to what’s being said.
5. Doing more of it
Businesses want action and efficiency without debate. But conversations only improve through being a natural and regular part of working lives, not as an event - being summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly team slot. Frequent, open and trusting conversations need to be part of the culture, encouraged and supported. Managers should be making sure there are consistent messages about open conversations, the support and development available, putting more time and resources into supporting people away from escalating their negative feelings, and towards dialogue with each other.
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Patrick has been working in the field of personal development for more than 25 years. He has trained hundreds of Mediators and is our Head of People Development & Mediation, He specialises in group and senior level facilitation, and co-created Conversational Intelligence, our behavioural and culture change programmes.