Book Review by Andy Ghillyer
Conflict, whether it’s freely expressed or left frustratingly unresolved, is becoming an increasingly frequent presence in our lives. The polarization of politics is making family get-togethers more tense than ever, and corporate mandates seem to be expecting abject compliance rather than encouraging productive discourse.
In his new book Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement, author Buster Benson sets out to challenge many of our misconceptions about conflict and offers an eight-step path to a world in which disagreements can actually be productive.
Are you conflict avoidant? Or do you find yourself getting flustered when directly challenged, only to walk away and come-up with the perfect retort several hours later? These feelings are more common than you might think. Labeling yourself as conflict avoidant may justify non-participation in any disagreement, but it also carries the stigma of being unable to disagree productively.
Benson argues that we should change our mindset about disagreements, seeing them as healthy and a necessary component of healthy communication. If those disagreements are open and are given an “honest chance to be heard,” they can make a valuable contribution to problem resolution.
The Map of Argumentland
Benson’s description of a world in which disagreement can actually be productive is presented as a map through “argumentland.” He argues that the courage needed to undertake this journey should be grounded in a moral imperative to tackle conflict in the open rather than pushing it into the shadows through avoidance “where it only grows stronger.”
The eight-step journey begins with increased self-awareness and ends with a greater appreciation of the value of exploring opposing and even dangerous ideas. Step one begins by recognizing your personal beliefs and expectations as trigger-points for anxiety, you can identify the point at which you should remain objective rather than allowing the dialogue to escalate. Step two builds on that increased self-awareness by asking you to identify your internal voices that influence your response to avoidance. The voices of power, reason, and avoidance are directly reflective of your cultural upbringing, but Benson advocates for a fourth voice––possibility––that directly challenges the directives of the other three. Steps three and four examine the challenges presented by cognitive bias and our willingness to embrace stereotypes.
Steps five through eight move from self-awareness to productive skills development. Which questions you ask and how you ask them can make a huge difference. Benson argues that by balancing “impatience for a quick answer with the desire to actually land on the best possible answer,” the potential for pre-judgment is greatly reduced. Step six introduces the concept of nutpicking––the practice of picking the “nuttiest nut,” on the opposing side because “they are the easiest to tear apart.” Following this practice is a blatant declaration of war and guarantees unproductive dialogue. By identifying the “wisest and healthiest,” members, you are committing to an informed dialog.
The journey through argumentland may challenge your established patterns of dialog, but the increased self-awareness and improved skills are worth the trip.
Why Are We Yelling? offers a clear path to calm and productive dialog and will convince you that productive disagreements are a real possibility.
Andy Ghillyer is a Contributing Writer at Soundview. He lives in Tampa, FL where he specializes in writing for the B2B and academic markets while raising a growing menagerie of cats and dogs. His other reviews are here.
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