In a more everyday way of speaking, I'd replace "Ethical Debate" in the title of this essay with "Fighting Fair," but the word fighting has baggage. To fight, literally, is to "participate in a violent struggle using weapons or physical blows." In most workplaces, such exchanges are hopefully rare. We often use the term fight to mean debate; to argue — sometimes vehemently — for our respective positions. Weaponry doesn't usually enter the picture.
So when we talk about "fighting fair," we're referring to debating in a style that respects some rules. There aren't many rules, and they're usually unwritten, but one hopes they include things like "no lying," and "no name-calling."
Most people would agree that some behaviors that do occur in workplace debates are toxic: raising voices, stalking out of rooms, slamming doors, abruptly hanging up phones, using all caps in email, and so on. When these things happen, apologies or regrets frequently follow. And so we usually refrain from these actions.
There are other unspoken rules of debate — guidelines, actually — that are less widely recognized, but no less important for organizational health and personal wellbeing. Although some might hold that abiding by these less-widely-recognized guidelines is inadvisable, I've found that groups that do abide by them are happier and achieve higher levels of performance. Here's Part I of a set of suggestions for more ethical debate within your organization.
- Share information helpful to your debate partner
- Concealing or withholding information that would strengthen your debate partner's position can lead to joint decisions that — while favorable to you — are more likely to be unfavorable for the organization.
- If you know something that would strengthen your debate partner's position, offer it. To manage the small risk of seeming condescending, ask permission first: "Hmm, I see what you mean. I think I can make your argument a little stronger. Interested?" If you can't respond effectively when your debate partner has all the facts, your own position might not be as "right" as you believe.
- Avoid rhetorical fallacies
- Rhetorical fallacies are distracting or logically erroneous verbal artifices that often escape our notice. If you know something that would
strengthen your debate partner's
position, offer itPeople tend not to recognize them as illegitimate forms of argument. Some rhetorical fallacies are actually difficult to understand even when their explanations are carefully laid out. An example: "I don't know why we should listen to Chris on this; look at what happened the last time we took her advice." That's an example of an ad hominem attack. It criticizes the person, instead of the person's argument. For more, see Rhetorical Fallacies.
- Rhetorical fallacies usually provide advantages to their users, if you count as an advantage "winning" an argument on specious grounds. But in doing so, rhetorical fallacies can cause some or all parties to a debate to come to incorrect conclusions that lead to catastrophically expensive mistakes.
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Believe It or Else
- When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future
action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: III
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that.
Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here
are some of their techniques.
- Deliver the Headline First
- When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes
frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That
might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the
headline first, and then offer the details.
- When the Answer Isn't the Point: I
- When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of
the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question
wasn't the point of asking.
- Naming Ideas
- Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's
name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: Meeting Troubles: Collaboration
- In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Meeting Troubles: Culture
- Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.