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November 08, 2005

Interpersonal subtleties of debate and consensus

Over the past few weeks I've participated in a number of conference calls with other association professionals regarding some ASAE & The Center initiatives. The participants have been comprised of Chief Executive Officers, relatively senior VP types, and some consultants. Compared to these folks, I'm rather inexperienced in association management, but the calls have been real confidence boosters.

There were a few instances when I was able to convince the other participants that the direction I was advocating for was the most prudent. I was adamant on points where I felt very strongly. When I didn't have such conviction, I surrendered those points. After the four conference calls were over, I reflected on the experiences and felt I had performed rather well in navigating the discussions and helping to build an environment of healthy debate.

One of the most challenging things for me is to determine how emphatically to debate an issue. This is especially difficult over a conference call because you can't read body language.

I have to constantly be aware of how my words contribute to the debate/consensus paradox. At what point does my debating become overly aggressive, causing others to simply relent because I'm coming across as obstinate? And at what point should I give up my own convictions when I'm clearly not in agreement with the group? The answers to these questions are predicated on the situation, and I don't have a method or formula for deciding how to make the decision; it's just a gut instinct.

How do you get a read on your contributions to a debate and how do you decide whether to back off or press on?


Chris said...

Debate is just one way to get your point across to other folks. Another one, and perhaps far more transformative, is dialogue. Daniel Yankelovich's The Magic of Dialogue is a great book defining some of what sets dialogue apart from debate and other forms of communication.

There are times when debate may seem to be the best route, but I think more times than not, we underutilize dialogue. One of the key features is how it challenges us to learn from another person and to honor their distinct viewpoint. So, rather than trying to get the other person to wholely accept what we are trying to say, the objective is to find areas of mutual agreement and move forward from there.

Sara said...

I am struggling with this, too. I tend to argue very forcefully for my point and I have a hard time backing off. That's usually good, but lately I wonder if I'm bullying my coworkers into agreeing with me to shut me up! I've resolved to try to back down and listen more often.

Hope this doesn't go the way of the resolution to give away less information at board meetings!