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Don't Argue with Me

February 04, 2017 10:53 AM | James Milliken

      “Don’t argue with me – I have debated before the American Bar Association.”

     That is one of the more efficient discussion killers I have collected in a lifelong study of human conversation. If the remark doesn’t instantly freeze the other party, it sets an agenda for a losing exchange. You are put down and set up in one neat pre-emptive strike.
     Are you going to now argue about whether you’re arguing, or debate debating with a master debater?
     You got into the conversation originally to explore differences and seek understanding. It hadn’t occurred to you that it was a competition. If that’s what it is going to be, you’ll need to reorder your entire frame of mind. Probably need to do some research, too.
     That is, of course, if you buy the choice you have been so smoothly locked into. If you don’t buy it, how would you rate your chances of resetting the basis for why we’re talking? 
     Perhaps the politic thing to do is just acquiesce and withdraw.

     Here’s another, this one relying upon blunt force to nail a point:

     “That’s where you’re wrong.”
     Hey, I was just offering an idea, not picking a fight. Wrong or right wasn’t the point. Now that it unexpectedly is, I’m either flummoxed or mad . . . or both. If I’m not careful, we’re off into an utterly irrelevant argument about manner, facts, sources or events.
     I’m not prepared for that, and the sour outcome pretty much kills off whatever it was I started out to explain.
     Both of those examples involve managers and staff members, and both accurately reflect how the relationships were conducted as a regular matter. When the exchanges occurred in the presence of third parties, they were instructive for all – and sometimes intentionally hyped for that purpose.
     As with all communication between people, each of the conversations had two main components: Intention, or purpose; and tactics, the visible/audible action to execute the intention.
     If you think such a description makes too big a deal out of a simple comment/response, you’re mistaken.

     Think about it: There are people you are in regular contact with who make you feel good, just by the way they relate to you. They’re cheery, interested, responsive, always happy to see you. Your working arrangement with them may be virtually nonexistent, but they’re in your daily life and you’re happy to have them.

     If, on the other hand, they are directly above you in the organization’s hierarchy, it can be a pleasure to go to work each day, to exchange suggestions, carry out assignments and resolve problems. You can feel yourself growing, and you love everything about it.
     Now back to those two put-down artists. When someone fixes you with a steady gaze, pauses and says in a firm, even tone, “Now that’s where you’re wrong,” the statement sticks. The moment takes on some importance, and the criticism cuts somewhat deeper, because that is the obvious intention.
     Generally, with such a person you never know when you’re going to absorb a gratuitous slam. They ambush people, and you’re going to be cautious and restrained around them.

     As with so many other workplace realities, this intention/tactics consideration has a heightened effect in Project Management.

     When your project is heavily characterized by complexity, dependency, risk, time constraints, etc. – that is, is a real project – the project manager and key decision makers really need to trust one another.
     The relationships do not necessarily need to be close and warm, but the personal agendas must be open and truly collaborative. The moment-to-moment interactions must demonstrate sincere respect and responsiveness.
      When something needs fixing, including the actions or behavior of a teammate, there is absolutely no question that a constructive outcome is the sole strategic goal . . . and professional courtesy characterizes the tactics.
     Effective project managers make sure it’s that way. No argument.


  • February 04, 2017 11:17 AM | James Milliken
    The obvious question, then, is: What do you do about it?
    It is best to have in one's back pocket a way to manage moments like that. That's especially true when the put-down artist is someone you must interact with frequently.
    Emotion control is important in both cases, of course. Be prepared to immediately resist the impulse to get into it. People who use those negative tactics are used to angry reaction, and their real purpose is served when you give them the opportunity to further their malign purpose.
    One response, as suggested in the commentary, is to politely withdraw from the point: "It was just a thought." Then move on to other matters, or just move away -- by leaving. Either way, no display of negative emotion.
    In the right circumstances, it can be useful, and maybe interesting, to put the ball in the other court: "Oh -- I'd like to hear what you have to say."
    Over time, dignity and courtesy often reduce the rough edges in these relationships. When that doesn't work, at least it reduces the emotional burden.
    I ran into a fine quote back when: "I'm not going to let that unhappy person determine how I feel about myself today."
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