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How to manage arguments productively (for Committees)

Whether it's at the board level or in a simple volunteer committee, arguments are a normal and healthy part of any committee's life. Managing them poorly can ruin relationships and create a toxic atmosphere, but managing them productively can lead to greater creativity and accountability for everyone.

This guide gives you a step-by-step process to handle arguments productively--from knowing when to engage to knowing how to keep track of progress.

Things you'll need

  • An open mind

Change how you think about arguments

Some people think an argument is a sign something has gone wrong, when really all it means is people see things differently and feel strongly enough to keep to their view. But that's a good thing! Diversity and conviction are precisely what nonprofits should look for in staff and volunteers!

So why the bad rap? 

Arguments become destructive when people get confused about what it means to "win" an argument.  Many people see winning as convincing others of their own view. This makes argument a competition. But if they are wrong then nobody wins.

In reality, winning an argument means accomplishing what you came together to accomplish (e.g. selecting the best event theme, or adopting the best policy, etc.). This is a collaborative activity. Everybody is on the same team.

TIP: Make your goal clear at the outset of every meeting and keep it top of mind.


Recognize when it is not possible to win

Picking the right time and place for an argument is the first step to winning it:

  • How are people feeling?
  • Is there enough time to listen to all views in depth?
  • Do you have all the information you need?

There may never be a perfect time, but if (1) tensions are already running high; (2) you're not going to be able to hear everyone out; (3) you're missing crucial information, then the best thing you can do is set the question aside for another time. 

TIP: Is anyone's pride at stake without a way to save face? If so, it may not be a good time to argue. 


Clarify the question

How many times have you argued for a long time only to realize you actually agreed from the beginning?

This happens when each person is answering a different question.

The more precise the question is from the outset the less likely people are to disagree, and the clearer their reasons for disagreeing will be. Break big questions into many smaller questions, e.g. Where should we have the event? becomes

    • What is our budget for the venue?
    • Who are our target audiences (ranked by priority)?
    •  What capacity will we need?
    • etc.

Each one of these questions in turn can be broken up. Indeed, before anyone expresses a view on any question, it is worth getting consensus on the question and writing it down where everyone can see it.


Talk in terms of reasons not conclusions

When you express your opinion, don't just give the conclusion you've come to but give your specific reasons for coming to that conclusion. 

When others state their opinion, make sure you understand their reasons. 

When you respond to others, discuss their reasons before you discuss their conclusions. Ask them to do the same for yours.

  • Are your reasons true or false?
  • If your reasons are true does it mean your conclusion necessarily follows or could other conclusions follow too?

TIP: Remember, it's possible for every reason someone gives to be true without that meaning their conclusion is supported. In logic this is called an invalid argument. 


Explore ideas by questioning where they lead

Think about every argument like a hypothesis about the world. Like every hypothesis, it must be tested. Even if you've got burning counter-arguments it pays to be curious first. Ask:

  • What must be true if what you say is true?
  • If we agree with you then what happens next?

Exploring an idea is a great way to make sure you really understand it and reveal any problems that might be lurking beneath. Increasingly specific questions will make answers clear to everyone, including the person whose idea is being tested.


Avoid logical fallacies

Learn to recognize logical errors so you can avoid making them yourself and name them when you see them. They're a good way to pinpoint when an argument rubs you the wrong way and you don't quite know why.



Stay on track or identify when you're switching tracks

Have you ever argued so long you forgot what exactly you were arguing about?

Have you ever started arguing about one thing only to end up arguing about a completely different thing?

  • Take time to remind people of the specific question you came up with earlier. 
  • When new questions emerge, flag them and ask specifically if you want to change topics or park the new questions for later.
  • If you do decide to start a new question, remember to take the time to define it.
  • Whenever you give a new reason for what you believe say what conclusion it supports and how it answers the question.

Take stock

At the end of an argument, the chair, minute taker, or any conscientious participant, should recap how they understand what has been said. They should then ask what this means going forward, for example:

  • Propose specific wording for a vote
  • Identify a specific time and place at which the question might be revisited
  • (if the discussion was purely advisory) ask the decision-maker to explain what they will do with the results of the discussion.

No matter what happens, every participant should feel that they have not only been heard but it made a difference that they were part of the argument.

Productive arguments always end with a clear sense of what happens next.


Page last edited Nov 27, 2017 History

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