The Art of Arguing at Work

I.

If you think about it, arguments are an indispensable aspect of human existence. They are the only way 2 parties can come to an agreement and they are the only way 2 people can begin to resolve conflicts. Be it a 90 year old who wants to be euthanized or a 10 year old who wants to watch TV at 1 O’clock in the night, arguments are the only conciliatory tool we humans have.

Imagine if there was no such thing called arguments. What a boringly monotonous world it would be. Everyone would have the same opinion, have the same taste and do the same things the same way. That sounds a lot like animals and less like humans. Without arguments, there would be no difference between intelligent, conscious beings and dumb animals. In a way, arguments are a reminder that we are independent, conscious beings with diverse perspectives.

Arguments themselves are diverse. Some are fiery and dramatic, some are contemplative and slow. Some are friendly, some are ugly. Some are trivial and some are not. Some change you for the better, some for the worse. Some mark the demise of a friendship, some mark the beginning of a friendship. Some take you closer to the solution, some distance you from the solution.

Arguments can happen anywhere: in the streets, inside the house, at dinners, in front of relatives, at parties, at workplace and even inside our head. Lets double click on workplace arguments.

II.

Workplace arguments should take you closer to the solution and not distance you from it. After all, you are getting paid for solving problems, not for creating new ones. Yet, people at work argue in a way that does the latter.

I can never understand why people get angry during discussions at work. If a team member does not understand something, does passing a derogatory comment help? If two colleagues do not see eye to eye, why does it cause tension? If an employee disagrees with her boss, why does the boss get offended? What is the need for a person to raise his voice at work? These are unfathomable for the simple reason that anger is an emotion that is inimical to employee productivity. Anger only distances you and your collaborators from the solution. It is a morale killer.

This becomes particularly dangerous with hierarchical arguments, i.e someone at the top is yelling at someone below them, for it achieves nothing. In fact, it is regressive — all it does is make the other person feel like trash and this person is supposed to go and get work done while feeling like trash? Like…what are you trying to achieve here? Humiliation is counter-productive. Again, a simple concept to grasp.

But I think everyone knows this. You probably mentally nodded in agreement to the above points. Where it gets hard is when you are in the moment. In the moment, it is easy to get carried away by your emotions. But we can all do better, can’t we?

III.

If you are someone who is struggling to keep your emotions in check, then congrats. It means you have identified the problem and identification is the first step in solving a problem. How do you solve the problem? Keep your eye on the prize: the work.

The work (project or task) is what matters. Why do you bring your emotions into the picture? What are you trying to achieve by making remarks with irritation and contempt? The moment you do that you are drawing the crowd’s attention away from the task to your emotions. You’re saying ‘Forget about the task and look at me. I am so angry now.” Are you and your emotions more important than the work that needs to be done? No. Do not make it about you. It’s all about the work.

Before uttering anything, take a moment to ask yourself “Can I convey the same message without anger?” If the answer is yes, which it almost always is, then do it without anger.

Be prudent about where you spend your energy. If you’re giving too many fucks about the project that you are losing your temper, learn to give lesser fucks. While you are doing that, be mindful of the impact your comments have on others.

There are, however, times when passing comments colored with frustration helps. Steve Jobs did it all the time. For example, consider this anecdote involving Intel’s former CEO Andy Grove: There was a meeting to which an employee came few minutes late. Andy sharply remarked “All I have in this world is time and you are wasting it.” That remark seems to lack empathy at first glance but we can say with certainty that it caused a drastic change in Intel’s employees. People in that meeting who heard Andy say that would never be late to another meeting. It helped cause an instant cultural shift.

However, use this judiciously for in majority of the cases, it has a detrimental effect. Tyranny is an exception rather than the rule. Wield it only to serve a higher purpose.

IV.

While the pressure to do better lies on the aggressor, there are things that the victim can do to tackle the situation.

Firstly, the same advice applies to the victim too: focus on work and ignore the emotions (of the aggressor). Filter out the annoyance in your manager’s words and try to find out what he wants. If your manager draws the attention to his emotions, you draw the attention back to the task at hand. Show him how it is done. This disarms the aggressor and if he is intelligent enough, he might even realize that progress can be made without aggression.

Secondly, be cognizant of Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). FAE is a cognitive bias wherein you judge others on their character but you judge yourself on the situation. For example, If you had a fight with your spouse in the morning, then you know why you are snapping at people at work. But if you see another person snapping at people, you label them as short-tempered. If you are slow because you did not sleep well last night, you don’t judge yourself harshly. Whereas you see another person being slow, you think they are a ‘slow person’. Be mindful of the fact that a person’s behavior could be a consequence of circumstantial factors and not a consequence of their character.

Seeing it through this lens is empowering. You see that the other person is not strong enough to keep their emotions in check. So you can play the big brother/sister role and step up. Support them by drawing their attention back to the work instead of letting them get consumed by their emotions.

It’s not only kind to view others’ situations with charity, it’s more objective too. Be mindful to also err on the side of taking personal responsibility rather than justifying and blaming.

- yourbias.is

Both of these suggestions are hard to practice as they require a level of stoicism. Plus, of course, this should not be the kind of environment one should be working in. But in that moment when you are at the receiving end of fury, these things help.

V.

Irrespective of whether you are the aggressor or the victim, it pays well to have the right mindset about arguments.

How do you view arguments? Do you view them as a battle to be won or a dance to be performed? From this article by Taylor:

In modern society, the default metaphor for argument is war……All the words we use to talk about arguing are also words we use to talk about war. We see the person as an opponent who we want to triumph over. When someone opens an argument with us, we feel like we are being assaulted. We attack his positions and gain or lose ground as the argument goes on.

If you make it about winning and losing, you are making it about yourself. You are prioritizing personal triumph over collective progress.

As Taylor says, instead of a war, view arguments as a dance.

Imagine, instead, an environment where the metaphor for argument was dancing. A point of contention would be a particularly dramatic moment in the dance. Your partner (not opponent) would step towards you, not to attack, but to work with you to create a movement that was beautiful, elegant, and true. One partner moving backwards wouldn’t be seen as losing, but letting the other partner lead when they were stronger at this particular dance — a very logical thing to do when you’re dancing, but not when you are at war.

This way, you remove the toxicity from an argument and turn it into a collaborative discussion instead.

Views expressed are mine.

Thanks to Subasini, Ananya and Krithika for reading drafts of this.

Writer. Reader. Philomath. Optimist. Figuring out life one article at a time at bitsoveratoms.substack.com