The Art of Having a Productive Argument

Learn to articulate what you want, spend time listening and try to understand the other side. And experiment with these seven steps.

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By Sharí Alexander

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For the film Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, the Apple founder shared his views about how teams develop something great: Polishing ideas can be like polishing rocks, he said.

It's a lesson he learned in childhood while hanging out with a neighborhood kid. He recalled putting some "regular old ugly rocks" in a tumbler with some grit and liquid. As they turned, the can made quite the racket.

"I came back the next day," Jobs added. "And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other … creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks."

"That's always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they're passionate about," Jobs said. "Through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise and working together, they polish each other and they polish the ideas."

Related: 7 Power Tools of Persuasion

Though you might find Jobs' version of making a little noise unhealthy (he yelled) or even, as he admitted in the film, not sustainable, this doesn't mean you should shy away from arguments all together. Arguments move ideas forward, improve concepts and can even improve relationships.

Here are seven ways to bring about more productive arguments at your business:

1. Make It timely. Sometimes an argument needs to happen, but people are avoiding a confrontation. And so the problem festers and becomes toxic. In time, there can be multiple issues needing fixing all at once, making the situation especially challenging. And in certain cases if too much time elapses, it can become almost impossible to do anything to solve the problem. Have the argument as quickly as you can.

2. Let the argument be like a tennis match. When you argue, state your case clearly, then shut up and let the other individual talk. Lob your arguments over and wait for a response. The least productive arguments occur when people believe that whoever talks the most and the loudest wins. That isn't a debate; that's bullying.

Good arguments are like tennis matches. In tennis, both players aren't trying to hit the ball at the same moment. They wait for their turn. It takes patience and strategy. The same rules should apply to arguments.

3. Seek an understanding. When it's the other person's turn, listen with the goal of comprehending his or her point of view. If you're creating a list of "yes, buts" in your head while another person talks, then the conversation is doomed since you aren't really listening. But when you listen to understand, your physiological response changes. You aren't in such a tense, reactionary state. You might even discover that you enjoy the argument.

4. Don't make it personal. Usually when people fight to win, they fight dirty and then no one wins. When you become fixed on the idea of winning, you might resort to making a personal attack. Confine your comments to the ideas or behaviors being discussed. Don't make personal jabs.

Related: 7 Steps to Defuse Workplace Tension

5. Use visuals. We are highly visual creatures. Arguments can arise when someone else doesn't see your point of view, literally. If you can, help the person see what you see. Whip out a pen and draw on a napkin, if you need to. Giving a person something to look at can result in "Oh! That's what you meant!"

6. Talk about what you are seeking. We sometimes get into arguments because we're very clear about what we're against yet we're a bit hazy about what we desire. We assume that if we clearly explain what we don't want, then the other person will figure out what we're seeking.

That's not the case. Frame your argument around what you're looking for. What do you want this person to do? How do you want him or her to behave? How would you know your goal had been achieved it if you saw it? If you can't answer these questions, then spend some time to figure things out. After all, if you don't know what you want and can't articulate it, then how can another person?

7. The other person's victory can become yours. Leadership isn't about being right all the time. If you want a perfect "win" record, then keep a resume handy because you'll need another job soon.

Don't be afraid to concede and let a colleague win. Giving another person a victory can make him or her feel good, more confident and perhaps disposed to like you more. Your "loss" can still be your victory -- for your team and your company.

Related: An Exercise in Compromise: How to Agree to Disagree

Sharí Alexander

Persuasiveness Coach & Speaker and founder of Observe Connect Influence

Sharí Alexander is a communication specialist and founder of Observe Connect Influence, a Los Angeles based training and consulting firm helping leaders increase their influence through educational programs and private coaching. She blogs at

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