Mistakes You’re Probably Making When You Argue

Jessica Stillman

Here is an article written by Jessica Stillman for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network (March 9, 2011). To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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Some people relish a good verbal battle, while others (like me) go to some lengths to avoid confrontation. But love them or loathe them, substantive arguments are part of business and polishing up your skills when it comes to making your case is probably a good idea for anyone who wants to advance in their career. Handily, the Harvard Business Review is ready to help out.

A recent slide show by Sarah Green points out nine common mistakes people often make while arguing as well as tips to avoid them. The slide show is well worth a read in full, but to get a flavor of the errors you might be making, here are [three of] five of Green’s argument pitfalls:

We fall into a combat mentality. When difficult conversations turn toxic, it’s often because we’ve made a key mistake: we’ve fallen into a combat mentality. This allows the conversation to become a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. But the reality is, when we let conversations take on this tenor -– especially at the office -– everyone looks bad, and everyone loses. The real enemy is not your conversational counterpart, but the combat mentality itself.

We try to oversimplify the problem. If the subject of your argument were straightforward, chances are you wouldn’t be arguing about it. Because it’s daunting to try and tackle several issues at once, we may try to roll these problems up into a less-complex Über-Problem. But the existence of such a beast is often an illusion. To avoid oversimplifying, remind yourself that if the issue weren’t complicated, it probably wouldn’t be so hard to talk about.

We react to thwarting ploys. Lying, threatening, stonewalling, crying, sarcasm, shouting, silence, accusing, taking offense: tough talks can present an arsenal of thwarting ploys. (Just because you’re trying to move beyond the combat mentality doesn’t mean your counterpart is.) But you also have an array of potential responses, ranging from passive to aggressive. Again, the most effective is to move to the middle: disarm the ploy by addressing it. For instance, if your counterpart has stopped responding to you, you can simply say, “I don’t know how to interpret your silence.”

Check out the complete post on HBR for the rest of the errors and more ideas on avoiding them. Or, brush up on your communication skills, with these additional  BNET resources:

How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation

How to Be Direct Without Being a Jerk

The Nice Girl’s Guide to Negotiation

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Jessica Stillman is an alumna of the BNET editorial intern program, which taught her everything she knows about blogging. She now lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.


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