Nobody said it was going to be easy to bring a bunch of driven professionals into a room and get them to work together peacefully for the good of the business. But that’s what a workplace is. With ambition comes passion and, inevitably, flared tempers and arguments.
But this passion is why you’re a part of this team. And cleverly harnessed, that spirit of debate can be a great way to discover the best new ideas and to expose flaws in those processes on which you over-depend.
However, because it’s a whole bunch of people – real, human people! – it’s no good just getting on with the argument and guessing things will come out for the best. Arguing for business – whether you aim to win or you just want to see a successful resolution – is a business skill in its own right.
Here’s how to do it.
Getting ready to argue
A mild difference of opinion can quickly calcify into an immoveable obstruction if it is left alone too long. When problems arise, it is best to confront them quickly – even if confrontation isn’t your thing. Before you go face to face, sit and think things through, and make a plan on how to progress. You’ll want to schedule a meeting, and for this you’ll need an agenda, which you should share in advance with the other party so they can prepare too.
Your agenda will be a good guide for the research process. Learn everything you can about the product, process, or dispute in question, and make notes to refer to in the meeting. But condense your argument down to just a handful of points so that you don’t lose the forest among the trees. A compelling argument rarely needs more than three or four bold points – you just need to have the rest on standby in case other elements of the topic come up.
In addition to your notes, you might want to create some visuals such as graphs, charts, and lists. These strengthen your argument as they seem more scientific. They can also work as an aid to your memory. And they show how prepared you are, which in itself gives you more authority in the meeting room.
Finally, remember the other person is probably preparing in this way, too. So if you have time, try to think your way through the argument that they are likely to make. Or, to put it more diplomatically, try to see things from their point of view. Maybe they’re actually right about some stuff, and conceding some points will be good for everyone.
How to stand up and be heard
Once you’re in the heat of the discussion or argument, it is important to maintain open, positive body language and to keep your voice calm and controlled.
Stand or sit facing the other person with your arms at your side to illustrate that they have your focus. Keeping your arms uncrossed makes you appear more open – and actually works to keep your mind open, too. Positive body language can reduce levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) by 25% so it works like a feedback loop to keep keeping you calm.
Similarly, keeping your voice down helps your brain to make calm, beneficial decisions. It is also helpful to keep your language neutral, referring to facts and demonstrable truths rather than making accusations or generalizations about the other person’s personality. “I feel that x happened” is more likely to keep them open to your criticism than “you did x.”
Involving them in your visuals is another good way to create engagement and open the path to a shared resolution. Don’t protect the whiteboard jealously; give the other person access, or even collaborate with them on a list of pros and cons, or mathematics to prove your calculations.
Whatever happened in the argument, you’ll have to work together afterwards – and if not, you have a reputation to protect – so be sure to apologize for anything you said that was out of line. Give credit where credit is due and always act with grace and respect, whether you won, lost, or came to a mutual agreement.
If the argument didn’t get resolved, or you weren’t satisfied with the outcome, don’t sulk: get back to the drawing table. Figure out what went wrong and what reasonable steps you can take to improve matters. Research the points that your opponent brought up and think through their argument – sometimes it makes more sense in the cool light of day. If you’re convinced that you’re right, consider calling another meeting in a fresh location with other colleagues involved. You might even want to call in an expert or an arbitrator from outside: couple therapy for company partners!
If things remain heated and serious, don’t forget to keep a diary of what happens and what is said, in case it goes into official arbitration. You might also want to set some ground rules before the situation develops further. Let the other person know that it is not cool to talk about this on social media, or to proceed with their intentions until an agreement is made.
This may all sound very serious, but if you run your argument professionally from the beginning then there’s no reason things shouldn’t work out well for all involved. For a bit of help along the way, try working through this visual guide to workplace arguments.