How to Debate Ideas Productively at Work

By Harvard Business Review
July 5, 2019

While disagreements can be uncomfortable, they are more likely to lead a group to make progress, rather than conversations in which people hold back what they think.

A company with a culture of arguing sounds like a problem. But arguing can be a good thing if people do it in a healthy way.

Research tells us that cognitive diversity makes a group smarter, especially when everyone is willing to share his expertise and opinions.


Effective discourse requires adopting the right habits. Here’s how to get there:

REMEMBER YOU’RE ALL ON THE SAME TEAM: Kick off the discussion with a shared goal and a spirit of inquiry. Emphasize that all viewpoints in service of the shared goal are welcome, and everyone is an equal participant.

KEEP IT FOCUSED: To be productive, a debate must stay on track. It’s not about who cares more, who’s loudest or who’s most articulate. Distinguish between facts and interpretations. If the debate veers into other topics, acknowledge it and reset.

DON’T MAKE IT PERSONAL: Arguments tend to fracture when people feel like their ideas or identities are being attacked. Stay away from questions that cast judgment; instead, try “What makes you feel that way?” or “What has led you to that conclusion?” Assume that everyone’s intentions are good. Reward people for carrying the group forward, rather than for being “right.”

BE INTELLECTUALLY HUMBLE: Participants need what psychologists call intellectual humility. It means that you don’t take things personally; that you listen to and respect every viewpoint, even if you disagree; and that you admit when you realize you’re wrong, and cheerfully concede when others have good points.

Copyright 2018 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Management

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