Challenging Discussions – A Reach Out Approach

In my many years as a corporate executive, senior management consultant and military officer, I’ve been often asked why professionals have a tendency to argue amongst themselves. This blog focuses on some of the reasons why executives and leader/managers often have heated discussions; it provides some insights into how to better understand the drivers behind arguments, and it offers remedies to minimize these events.

Let’s start with why we argue.   One basis behind arguing is that “we think the other guy is the problem.” They may be:

  • Controlling: “We always have to do everything around here my boss’ way. He acts like his ideas are better than anyone else’s.”
  • Naïve: “This new manager has some substantial ideas about modifying our process – we just don’t think he remotely understands what he’s up against here”.
  • Self-focused or selfish: “The regional VP ‘forgot’ to mention that the idea he was pushing wasn’t his own.”

This list is by no means exhaustive but these are some of the more commonly cited perceptions that are the basis behind arguments.

If the person we’re arguing with is stubborn, we dig our heels in and assert ourselves even more intensively in an attempt to break through whatever is keeping them from seeing what is “sensible”. If the other person is naïve, we try to educate them about how life really is. If they’re being selfish or manipulative, we may decide to be quite forthright and call them on those behaviors.

Sound familiar?

It is important to note that just as we might think the other person is the problem, they quite likely believe that we are the problem. We are each trying to make sense in our own respective story of ‘what happened’.  The challenging discussions arise at precisely those times where critical parts of our story collide with another person’s story.  We assume the collision is because of how the other person is and they assume it’s because of how we are. Arguing creates a real problem in challenging discussions as it actually inhibits change. Telling someone to change makes it less rather than more likely that they will.  This is because people almost never change without first feeling they’ve been understood.

We each see our respective worlds differently because our stories are built-in, often unconscious but systematic ways.  That is:

  • We take information in. We experience the world (sights, sounds and feelings)
  • We interpret what we see, hear and feel -we give it  meaning
  • We draw conclusions about what is happening around us

In challenging discussions too often we trade only conclusions back and forth without getting down to where the real action is: the information and interpretations that lead each of us to see the world the way we do.

Here are some crucial things to think about:

            I.        We have different information.

We notice different things.  What we notice has a great deal to do with who we are and what we care about.

  • Some of us pay much more attention to feelings and relationships.
  • Others, to status and power or to facts and logic.
  • Some of us want to prove we’re “right”.
  • Others want to avoid conflict or smooth it over.
  • Some of us tend to see ourselves as victims and others as heroes or observers or survivors.

Therefore, the information we pay attention to varies accordingly.

In addition to selecting different information, we have access to different information. For example, others have access to information about themselves and their unique characteristics and what makes them “tick” that we don’t.  We each know ourselves better than anyone else can.  They know the constraints they are working under- we don’t. They know their hopes, dreams and fears- we don’t.

          II.        We have different interpretations.

There are two especially important factors in how we interpret what we see.  They are our own past experiences and the implicit rules we’ve learned about how things should and should not be performed or accomplished.

  • We are influenced by past experiences.  The past gives meaning to the present. Frequently, it’s only in the context of someone’s past experience that we can understand why what they are saying or doing makes any kind of sense.
  • Every strong view you have is profoundly influenced by your past. Often we are not even aware of how these experiences effect our interpretation of the world. We simply believe that this is the way things are.
  • We apply different implicit rules. Our past experiences often develop into “rules” by which we live our lives and, whether we’re aware of them or not, we all follow such rules.  The problem often occurs when our rules collide. Our implicit rules often take the form of things people should or shouldn’t do.    For example, “you should never criticize a colleague in front of others”, “you should never squeeze the toothpaste in the middle”, “you should spend money on education not on frivolous purchases like clothes and cars”, “you shouldn’t let the kids watch more than two hours of television a day.”  The list is endless.

What’s crucial in all of these comments is that in order to bring clarity and mutual understanding to the conversation that is starting off as argumentative, you’ve got to be willing to try to understand the other person’s point of view.  That does not mean you have to agree with their point of view or that you’re required to give up your own. I do suggest, however, that you carefully investigate the merit of both sides and then decide on the best course of action.

These are some of the components that most frequently mark argumentative discussions.  Know each other’s starting points; mutually investigate and consider the different information issues and differing interpretation possibilities.  It becomes important early on to investigate these issues to find common ground and gain appreciation for the validity of both your and their positions.  This is the beginning step of moving away from argument and towards cooperative, workable solutions.


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