Those of us whose work involves designing collaboration structures know that the design of conversations significantly influences the attitude people have when they interact within them. Design is particularly critical when it comes to the inevitability of arguing that occurs in collaborations, especially as we bring together different personalities with uneven knowledge fields around complex issues that resist a strategy of more of the same.
Two kinds of arguing happen in collaborations: relaxed arguing and tense arguing.
In relaxed arguing, people free to voice whatever they want: ideas, questions, feelings, concerns, commitments and suggestions. Everyone also feels welcome and valued for voicing differences.
In tense arguing, as some people feel free to voice what's on their mind, others do not.
The ones who don't lack a sense of trust that their contributions will be welcome and valued. In cultures of position and power inequalities, the power have-nots prefer to voice little or nothing because they don't trust the power-haves to welcome and value their honest contributions and differences. Protection is a higher priority than engagement.
The vocalists in tense arguing don't necessarily feel trust either. They are extroverts who can't help themselves or introverts willing to push their agendas as far as they can beyond expected resistances.
The declaration of consensus in tense arguing is an inauthentic consensus which always hurts quality of outputs, ownership and implementation. It's always interesting how many more excuses than results occur after collaborations of inauthentic consensus.
The costs of tense arguing outweigh any potential benefits. We lose important contributions, weakening the possibilities of authentic consensus and rich deliverables. Trust further weakens as the ideas of those who dominate have disproportionate influence over the ideas of those who disappear. This results in a smaller production of new, different and evolving ideas. The culture of tense arguing carries over into diminishing other attempts at collaboration.
The prime difference between tense and relaxed arguing is the attitude of listening more than the amplitude of voicing.
In tense arguing, it is acceptable for someone to show absolutely no response to another's contribution. It's acceptable for someone to say or ask anything in a way that unequivocally shuts down another's offering before it is considered for its validity and value. It's acceptable for someone to filibuster the conversation until they get their way. It's acceptable for a majority to expect minority compliance and label it "group consensus."
In relaxed arguing, several different attitudes are practiced.
- People kindly inquire into contributions they feel are not fleshed out enough
- They appreciatively validate the benefit of anything new that emerges at the table
- They respectfully voice concerns and differences of view with an attitude that these need to be explored, and might not be deal breakers for what's on the table
- Everyone trusts they will be heard and their contributions will be welcomed and valued
Everyone contributes more and as a result, the group becomes far smarter together than when stuck in loops of tense arguing. They favor the trust and insight building langauge of What about ... What if ... and What else ...?
Everyone also trusts in the importance of thinking through anything for its implications and researching rather than debating actionable questions or concerns that can be further researched.
Relaxed arguing grows trust. Trust is one of the most critical drivers of learning, creativity and authentic consensus. We have a huge opportunity and responsibility to help groups learn and practice the art and power of relaxed arguing.