According to my mother, at age seven I announced that I was going to learn how to win every argument. In school I studied rhetoric, logic, psychology, and debate. I was the weird kid who enjoyed reading encyclopedia articles. I’m pretty good at winning arguments; better in my own mind, surely, than in the minds of the “losers”!
Some years back I realized I was winning the argument but killing dialogue, where everyone in the conversation could learn and discern. Dialogue, from the Greek origin dia-logos, is two-way exchange of meaning. I’d become brutally good at making statements and pseudo-listening only long enough to launch my next artillery blast. No learning. Only grim stories about how I put that person in their place, which I gleefully replayed any time I wanted to feel “superior.” It’s particularly bad if your self-image is that you’re the smartest, cleverest guy in the room.
An example from an early conversation with an acquaintance who is extremely concerned about our responsibility to protect the natural environment. On a long car ride together he waxed passionately on about his views. I interrupted his fast-talking flow after about 45 minutes and asked if I could summarize his points. “Sure,” he said.
“The highest good any person can do is protect the planet.”
“Absolutely,” he replied.
“And the worst thing for the planet are people.”
“Yes, you’ve got it!” he said with a big smile.
“The logical conclusion is that you should commit suicide, to save the planet.”
He nearly drove off the road at this point. “No, no!” he said. “The problem is all those stupid people and greedy capitalists.” [Which led to an entirely new line of conversation…]
Over the past 22 years he and I have avoided talking about anything beyond golf and birds when we’re together. I’m certain I won the argument that day, but I seriously damaged our ability to dialogue about matters which we both feel are important. I’m sure I could learn a great deal from this man if I were able to talk about complex issues where we might offend one another.
A leadership challenge is discerning when we must make the tough, blunt, this-is-the-real-world-not-what-you-think-should be statements, and when do you consciously back away from “winning the argument” in favor of dialogue.
I don’t see a helpful formula here. I do see a need to favor dialogue much more than I have done in the past. For me the path forward is about being willing to “not win right now.”
What about you?