How to Debate with Colleagues Effectively (and Unemotionally)

Raise your hand if you’ve experienced this:

You’re working away when you see the inbox notification pop up in the corner of your screen. A colleague has responded to your email from earlier, and snippet you see in the preview bubble gives you the “uh-oh” vibe. Bracing yourself for a shot across the bow, you open the email to find that your colleague has shredded your idea in full view of everyone on the distribution list.  This isn’t your garden variety point/counter-point; you were on the receiving end of a sweep-the-leg takedown. Surprised at the vigor of the blowback, you’re not sure how to respond to the email staring back at you.

If you can relate to that moment, whether it happened over email, on a call, or in person, you’re not alone. People who present original thinking on a regular basis are guaranteed to create disagreement from time to time. And whether your preference is to avoid confrontation or fire back immediately, resolving these conflicts is part of your job. Effective leaders can work with their peers to reach the best answer for the business even amidst intense clashes of ideas. Navigating conflict without taking criticism personally or letting the back-and-forth sap your energy is not only an important skill, it’s critical for maintaining your own and everyone else’s productivity. Every time you help your team reach a productive outcome in this kind of situation, you have a chance to raise your stature in the organization. Often the people with whom you disagree with you the most frequently end up being the people whose opinion you value most

Before we get to how to handle these situations productively, it helps to break "conflict" down into a more manageable topic. 

What Makes “Idea Conflicts” Challenging

I am deliberately limiting this discussion to the conflicts that arise from a clash of ideas, which I refer to as “idea conflicts”. Conflicts that stem from interpersonal animosity amongst colleagues are different animals, and there are a number of resources dedicated to resolving these sorts of workplace issues. Partly because approaches to managing interpersonal conflicts seem well covered, I’m more interested in the intellectual clashes in which the conflict isn’t explicitly personal (although it can often feel that way).

Usually, what we fear in a heated debate is not so much our feelings our feelings getting hurt but rather our professional credibility and stature being challenged. I find that Idea conflicts are best understood along two dimensions: the relative seniority of the debating parties and their relative expertise. In any idea conflict in which you find yourself engaged, you can categorize the person you engage as having more, less, or equal seniority as you and whether their domain expertise is the same, different, or partially overlapping your own. Axes in hand, we can break out the types of idea conflict as follows:

Whether you and the other person draw on similar or different expertise usually determines the root cause of the idea conflict, whereas relative differences in seniority determine the risks of the discussion. People who outrank you may try to pull rank on you to shut down discussion, which is an unsatisfying way to end a debate.  On the other hand, when you are the more senior counterparty you should take care not to embarrass, demoralize, or alienate the person on the other side. After all, you want people to pressure test your ideas. It makes you a better thinker. Sometimes you need to cut off debate so that work can move forward; but be sure you don’t do so in a way that discourages debate in general.

The middle row of table (in which seniority is equal) shows the main sources of idea conflict. On the far right, disagreements often stem from you and a colleague having different priorities. For example, as a product manager I might disagree with a developer on how a software feature ought to work. I may be more concerned with competitive positioning, whereas he is more concerned with the performance implications of my requirements. The higher the stakes, be they costs or simply how invested we are in our respective ideas, the more intense the disagreement can become. Despite the severity of disagreement though, I actually find that two people with different priorities can usually resolve these issues in the best interest of the business. When priorities differ, there is usually enough wiggle room to balance each person’s concerns if the parties are willing to try.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, the most intense conflicts are often with those whom we understand best. The conflicts may arise less frequently, but when two people with the same expertise and backgrounds arrive at opposing conclusions from one set of facts, it can be extremely challenging to find any compromise. This is because unlike idea conflicts that arise from people whose priorities priorities, these conflicts involve two people with the same priorities who each think the other is wrong. There are a gajillion examples of this to choose from, but Bill Ackman and Carl Icahn’s high-profile dispute over Herbalife has been a recent great example. Two billionaire investors each evaluate the same company; one decides its a pyramid scheme and shorts the stock while the other buys the stock and joins its board. The dispute was incredibly ferocious and personal between the two of them, and aside from the huge sums of money involved, part of the bitterness stemmed from the fact that only one of them could be right. There is no wiggle room when two investors take opposing views on an investment.

Navigation Tips for Idea Conflicts

Idea conflicts are most easily resolved when the parties are more interested in getting to the right answer for the business than they are with being right. That has to be your guide when navigating any conflict of ideas. Aside from that, there are a few things I’ve learned from experience and my past managers that can help you reach the best outcomes for the business and yourself when you lock horns with someone:

Don’t ignore the conflict. The first step is recognizing that there’s a debate to be had. When someone challenges your ideas with some of their own, it is time to engage. That doesn’t mean that you defend your ideas to the death, but ignoring debate isn’t healthy for the organization or for your career. You’ll either let yourself get steamrolled, or you’ll ignore people who want to be heard. Engaging in debate is part of being a knowledge worker.

Listen to criticism and be honest with yourself. Listen closely to people’s criticism, even when it stings. Don’t worry too much about saving face when you receive valid criticism and need to backtrack on something you’ve proposed. Just say, “You’re right,” and then figure out what to do next. On the other hand, if you truly believe the other person’s arguments are incomplete or flawed, then you’re doing the organization a disservice by not pushing for a better outcome. Take the time to internalize their feedback and weigh its merits before you act one way or the other.

Don’t take the emotional bait. People can be passionate about their ideas, and that sometimes manifests itself as passionately eviscerating your ideas. Make it a point to be the calmer person, a technique whose value I’ve written about before, albeit in a different context. Don’t take criticism of your idea personally, but if the other person crosses the line don’t be afraid to enforce decorum. You don’t have to tell someone they hurt your feelings; just say, “That was a little abrasive – let’s keep it civil.” Most people don’t want to create personal conflict, so they’ll cool it. And if they really do want conflict and are trying to be abrasive, then you’ve stood your ground and made your point without further escalating things.

(One other thing: numbered lists are a good way to organize your thoughts, but if someone sends you an argumentative list of bullet points, you’re better off not responding with one of your own. Engaging on every one of their terms lets them dictate too much of the discussion. If you disagree with their arguments, tell them they are missing the point, and then try to get in a room or on the phone to resolve it. Switching up the venue often helps.)

Recognize When Compromise Won’t Work. There’s no hard-and-fast rule when this is true, but sometimes you simply have to go pick one or the other. Compromise is only the right option for the business when it allows you make the best possible tradeoffs amongst competing priorities. Don’t look for compromise if your only goal is to placate a colleague who’s making a fuss about something. When you can’t (or shouldn’t) find a midpoint between two choices, you’re better off looking for a mediator to break the logjam than finding a half-assed compromise that won’t deliver as much value. Speaking of which…

Respect the final decision maker (including if it’s you). When the final decision is made, you owe it to the organization to support it and give it an honest chance to succeed. And if the final decision is yours to make, be decisive when the time comes. It’s the least to you can do for everyone else to show some backbone, especially if your decision is going to be unpopular. You can lay out a plan for when and how you’ll re-evaluate down the line if you want to, but you need to make it clear to everyone that it’s time to move on and that you’re moving in a specific direction. The rest of the team needs it as much as you do.

You can't prevent conflict, nor should that be your goal. Leadership requires demonstrating willingness to engage thoughtfully as well as knowing when it's time to make a decision and move forward. Be respectful and decisive, and you will get respect in return - even if it is grudging at times.