Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 43;   October 22, 2014: Meta-Debate at Work

Meta-Debate at Work

by

Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
The signing of the Paris Peace Accords

The signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, ending the Vietnam War. The talks spanned a period of almost five years. There were serious difficulties from the outset, as the parties could not even agree on the shape of the conference table. It is this episode that gave rise to the phrase: "We're arguing over the shape of the table."

Certainly discussing the shape of the table is an example of meta-debate. But in the case of these peace talks, it might also have served a strategic function for both parties. They were engaged in a war of attrition, and probably each hoped to wear down the other. Meta-debates often serve strategic functions.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

At work, many discussions — especially discussions in meetings — are actually informal debates. They're informal because they lack specified structure. We exchange views, usually seeking resolutions that satisfy everyone. There are rules governing the exchange, but they're rarely explicit, and even when they are explicit, we usually regard them as common sense and social custom.

Sometimes a participant comments about the propriety of a contribution. For example, Malcolm might object to Teresa's assertion by saying, "How does that square with what you said about this last month?" Malcolm is demanding that Teresa's current position be consistent with a prior position. In his attempt to prevail in the current informal debate, Malcolm is invoking a previously unstated "rule" regarding positional consistency. He has entered the meta-debate: the debate about the rules of debate.

Certainly it's reasonable to wonder about positional inconsistencies. Inquiring about them must be permissible if we want to achieve clarity and enhance understanding. However, we often make such inquiries not in pursuit of understanding, but in pursuit of debate victories — to "score points." It's the intention to score points that distinguishes honest inquiry from meta-debate.

Other patterns of meta-debate include calling out one's debate partner for these unfair tactics:

  • Using rhetorical fallacies
  • Using abusive, insulting, or inappropriate language
  • Characterizing or labeling a debate partner, instead of directly addressing the issue
  • Raising issues that defocus the discussion
  • Raising one's voice
  • Using intimidation tactics
  • Citing powerful people as "proof" of an assertion's validity

Such tactics are often destructive, whether employed intentionally, or out of ignorance or negligence. But calling out one's debate partners for using these tactics is probably counterproductive. Calling out one's debate partners
for using these tactics is
probably counterproductive
To anyone who used these tactics out of ignorance or negligence, identifying the tactic can feel like an accusation or personal criticism. Some might respond defensively. The person who uses these tactics intentionally is even more likely to respond defensively.

Prevention, in the form of general education about informal debate, is usually more constructive. Include guidelines for fair debate in communications training, or in a team's behavioral norms. Or recruit a neutral facilitator who knows how to keep a group discussion respectful.

But what if someone uses unfair tactics? If you're a bystander or facilitator — not directly involved in the exchange — you're in the best position to act. For bystanders or facilitators, identifying unfair tactics isn't really meta-debate, because they aren't participating. They can intervene, saying that they believe that someone has used unfair tactics, and describing what they saw or heard. They can ask that the parties to agree to debate fairly, to ensure that they arrive at a conclusion that has a sound foundation. If you're directly engaged in the debate yourself, ask a bystander for help.

Caution: if the person using unfair tactics has organizational power superior to your own, objecting to unfair tactics might be unwise. Use discretion. Go to top Top  Next issue: Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensZUqtdOSMJLlHwVener@ChacjHBOZakEPIAsYCxWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Puzzle map of the worldDispersed Teams and Latent Communications
When geography divides a team, conflicts can erupt along the borders. "Us" and "them" becomes a way of seeing the world, and feelings about people at other sites can become hostile. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?
Lake Chaubunagungamaug signCreating Trust
What can you do when you discover that the environment at work is permeated with distrust? Your position in the organization does affect your choices, but here are some suggestions that might be helpful to anyone.
A scene from the Orphan Girl Theatre's production of Antigone at the Butte Center for the Performing ArtsStalking the Elephant in the Room: II
When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
Male peponapis pruinosa — one of the "squash bees."What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: I
When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
An iphone 7Compulsive Talkers at Work: Peers II
Our exploration of approaches for dealing with compulsive talkers now concludes, with Part II of a set of suggestions for what to do when peers who talk compulsively interfere with your work.

See also Conflict Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenUsrKugQyOSEHQsdpner@ChacJrALkpHlDAPCJOZroCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.