Conflicted: Why Arguing is the Right Thing to do.
Interviewed by The Army Leader
For years Ian Leslie was fascinated by the question of why public and private disagreements go so badly, so often. In public, they descend into acrimony or get stuck in a grinding neutral gear. In private, disagreements should shatter groupthink or be embraced as ‘reasonable challenge’. Yet they often challenge egos, create roadblocks or get hidden away to protect potential career damage. As a result, Ian researched conflict and buffed up on the principles of good intellectual debate. Then he embarked on a journey to understand how we can debate better, argue effectively and make the most of passionate and constructive conflict.
At the heart of his thinking was that winning an argument is not, as we often think, about being right but about finding out what is right. This distinction is important to a leader. Would you rather be publicly recognised as right, or discover the truth even if it shows you were initially wrong? If a leader cares about reaching the right conclusions before they act then surely the answer is the latter. So why does it often feel the other way around?
In his new book Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together Ian explores why we hate conflict. He concludes that emotion and ego hold us back from having the constructive, truth-seeking disagreements every leader needs. The Army Leader met Ian to asking him about the lessons in his book and find out how military and civilian leaders can reach better decisions by encouraging conflict, disagreement and passionate debate.
Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together
Army Leader: How did your interest in effective disagreement start?
Ian Leslie: I’ve been thinking about how humans deal with disagreements and conflict for quite a while, inspired by what I see in the public and political discourse, particularly on social media. I’m seeing a lot of really terrible, terrible arguments, and people seeming to engage in argument and conflict with each other but actually just talking past each other, talking over or down to each other.
It made me think, ‘why are we so bad at this?’ and the more I thought about it, the more I realised, there’s actually no particular reason why we should be good at it. For most of our history we haven’t really needed to develop an ability for disagreement and argument. So far, we have been programmed to either cope with the problems around us and know what the right decisions are, or we have operated in command and control environments where we just take orders from above.
Let me give you an example you can apply that to the military. In our families 50 or 60 years ago culture gave you very strong direction on the division of labour within the family: what women were supposed to do and what men were supposed to do, how children were meant to relate to adults and how adults were meant to talk to children. Obviously, there are exceptions, but you had a model of how a family works. A lot of things that might have been subject to conflict and disagreement and argument, like who should be doing the washing up, who should be going out and taking a job, were just not up for debate. Then you fast forward a few more decades, and in Western societies all these things are up for debate, and the division of labour is something that has to be negotiated. Certainly there’s no command and control – the male head of the household doesn’t get to have his way.
So you’ve got a much fairer, more equal, more democratic model of the family. But you’ve also got a model that opens the way for a lot more conflict and disagreement because you’ve got to hash all these things out. In a modern family, you’re in a constant negotiation with each other about who’s going to do what. A lot of these things were just not up for debate a few decades ago. You can take that basic model that I’ve just described and you can apply it to the military or to business organizations. We’ve got this much more egalitarian, democratic ethos that applies to all sorts of different spaces. And that means there’s just a lot more disagreement and conflict going on. But we’re not trained in how to deal with it. So we ask ourselves ‘how do I deal with all these people?’ or ‘How do I disagree with people in higher rank?’ and so on.
AL: The armed forces have gone through that sort of journey because they mirror society in many ways. People are more comfortable challenging authority and the benefits of authority being challenged are increasingly recognized. For example, the Chilcot Report said the government had a propensity for group think, lacked diversity and challenge and had an inability to argue with itself to work out the best way forward.
You talk in the book about diversity only really adding value if those with diverse views are brought into a conversation in a way that is argumentative and, as a result, creative.
IL: There is so much in that, you’re completely right. It’s like recognizing that there are huge benefits to allowing conflict and argument to happen, as long as it’s done in the right way. Which is basically what the book is about. The benefit is that you make better decisions when you get a clash of diverse perspectives and opinions. But then there’s also the benefit of camaraderie. Paradoxically, when people are comfortable disagreeing with each other, good arguments actually bring people together.
One of the great mistakes we make is that avoiding disagreement is a way of staying close together. Actually, if you avoid disagreement, it is corrosive to relationships because all the things that you inevitably disagree on get pushed under the carpet. They get turned into the equivalent of office politics.
When I was writing the book I started off thinking that the biggest problem was that we’re getting into too many fights, really hard, futile, pointless, destructive arguments. But as I thought about it, and as I researched it, I came to think that the biggest problem is avoidance. In social media we see so many examples of horrible futile, destructive argument. As a result we think “oh, no, I don’t want to go there”. We sit politely with each other and try and avoid any conflict. And that’s a bigger problem.
Of course it’s stressful for people to disagree. It’s stressful to disagree with your boss. It’s stressful for the boss to be disagreed with. And we also tend to confuse disagreement with an attack on us, personally. We find it very hard to separate the issue being debated from the personal relationship that’s at stake.
Finding a way to keep those stressors distinct from the argument is the task of leaders.
AL: What’s the advice you give to someone who’s got to take a team of individuals together, from a diverse background, for a stressful task or period of decision-making in a hierarchical organization? Is there one of your rules of productive argument that you think is the most important of all?
IL: The first piece of advice is first connect. The first thing you must do before disagreeing is establish a point of trust and human connection with the person you’re talking to. One reason that disagreements and conflicts go wrong is that people get into the disagreement before they’ve really established that they trust and respect each other.
Maybe there’s something that you both agree on? Let’s talk about what we agree on first, before we move to the disagreement. Maybe I have to connect with the person through what I say or how I say it? Or physically, whether it’s an arm around the shoulder or something else. Obviously all of these things vary from context to context. But there has to be a way of showing that you respect and trust each other before you get into the disagreement. Unless you do that, unless you establish that you are all on the same side, it can go pretty wrong pretty quickly. Or the disagreement doesn’t happen at all which is a bigger problem.
You need to say “we’re all going to disagree with each other – and that’s okay”.
That’s the first rule. The last rule that I talk about is the golden rule: be honest. In the book I go through the rules of productive disagreement, and various different techniques for disagreeing well. But there’s an underlying theme to all this, which is unless you’re doing it honestly and you’re establishing some real truthful connection, then it’s going to go wrong.
If you’re just using the techniques in the book as tricks to get people to engage with you, or to be persuaded by you, then it will very quickly become counterproductive. At the heart of this, you really need to look for a way to have honest disagreements openly without anyone feeling that they are being attacked in some way.
AL: Tell us some more about the idea of ‘giving face’. When you are in a relationship where there’s a power difference – as a military commander is – it’s hard for the more junior person to speak up and say, ‘I disagree with what you’re doing’. To avoid this, you recommend that you ensure it doesn’t turn into a status battle.
IL: Absolutely. You put it really well. That’s the way a lot of disagreements degenerate. They become power struggles or status battles between the people who are disagreeing. In sociology, they have this concept in interpersonal interactions that everybody’s ‘face’ is at stake. This is just a way of talking about status, right? You want to be seen as the person that you see yourself as. That applies to everybody. You want the public view of yourself to match with your own sense of self.
Depending on the tension in the situation, who’s in the room, how nervous you feel, your feeling of self-worth or your public status can become really, really important. So the skilful disagreer is always trying to minimize that status battle. The way they do that is by giving face, sometimes boosting up the other person if that’s what they think that they need. Or bringing down yourself, your own status, in some self-deprecating move.
You can think about that from either end of the hierarchical relationship. How do you give face? When you’re disagreeing with your boss, how do you make your boss feel comfortable with that? Because frankly not all of your bosses are going to be brilliant at accepting this kind of disagreement. It’s just a fact of life.
But also, if you’re the boss, or you’re top of the hierarchy, how do you manage that? How do you disagree with people without making them feel humiliated? Fundamentally, how do you model the fact that it’s okay to be disagreed with? When you have a more junior person disagreeing with you, how do you signal to everyone present that disagreement is okay; in fact, it’s expected?
In the chapter about giving face, I talk about Nelson Mandela and the way he dealt with the Arikaans leader of a nationalist military movement who threatened to rebel against him. A former army general, Viljoens was a highly respected, but racist, general. Mandela was in charge of the military because he was president. He had a choice: I can go in and I can effectively crush these guys but a lot of lives are going to be lost and it’s going to be a horrible conflict. Or I can try and talk to this guy, see if I can bring him on board into the democratic process. And he chose the latter route.
So he invited this former general to his house, and the general was prepared for a combative meeting. When he got there the first thing Mandela did was take him aside, away from his entourage so that it was just the two of them, which already lowered the status-battle stakes. And he served him tea. He didn’t have a servant do it. He didn’t order it up. He said, “How do you like your tea, general? One sugar or two? Would you like milk?” And the reason we know about this story is that the general became part of the democratic process and actually became a huge admirer of Mandela.
In a way, it seems insignificant. It’s not a great negotiation that’s happening. It’s just a man serving another man tea. But immediately, it was a way of giving face. It was a way of Mandela saying, ‘look, I’m happy to serve you’. ‘I’m happy to lower myself to the position of someone who’s going to make you make you tea and then let’s talk on the basis of mutual respect, and then we can get into some pretty tough negotiations’. Which was exactly happened over the following weeks.
AL: Doing that shows someone less powerful that you consider them equal and you’re willing to pay attention to their opinion. That’s incredibly powerful. Doing it very openly in public makes people understand that others can challenge your opinion and provide new opinions.
IL: That’s hugely important. A book recently came out by the boss of Netflix, called No Rules Rules. He talks about how he and his senior people invite pretty robust disagreement from junior staff. And how important it is for them to be seen to do that in front of all the other staff. He says they learn an awful lot from it. He said, ‘When we make bad decisions, which we do, it’s often because we haven’t mined all the disagreement from those lower down the ranks, which we needed to do.’
It’s really interesting. When people join Netflix it is quite common for them to be shocked when they’re in the meeting. A junior producer really takes on the boss over some issue. And the new joiner is always like, well, hang on a minute. This guy’s going to be in trouble. And in fact, afterwards, the CEO goes up to that person and says, ‘That was a great point,’ puts their arm on their shoulder. You have to show everybody that this is a great thing to do. Once you do that, then a lot of the fear about disagreement just goes.
AL: The fear of undermining your boss goes if your boss tells you this is the exact behaviour they’re looking for.
IL: Exactly. And actually, if anything, you will be penalized for not doing it!
AL: There’s a management theorist and consultant called Patrick Lencioni. In his book The Advantage he talks about building organizational health. The first thing is generating trust and mutual vulnerability. This ensures arguments are about the issue, not about the people arguing. He also says that you need to mine for passionate, unfiltered debate. It’s really hard for the military to get to passionate, unfiltered debate!
IL: I think that’s right. The first thing you have to make people understand is that they’re all on the same side, at you are all trying to achieve the same objective: to make the right decision. Once you have established that, then people should be able to go at the argument hard! Just as long as they’re not letting their ego speak for them. Because once you are into a status battle, everybody sticks to their initial position. You have to show that it’s okay to change from your initial position! It’s okay to back down from a position. I don’t know the army culture very well, but I imagine there’s quite a lot of guys who are not willing to back down from positions very easily.
AL: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks of ‘always giving someone the golden gate of retreat’. Essentially, you’re leaving some area for escape. A constructive argument isn’t about winning and losing but creating a way forward that everyone feels they’ve inputted to.
IL: I think that’s exactly right. And actually, a lot of the heat that comes in a disagreement is from people wanting their opinion to be heard. Once it is heard and engaged with, most of that heat will go away even if the decision goes the other way. Disagreements are not all about the disagreement, if you see what I mean. There’s a lot of other things going on. One of the big things is the feeling that ‘I want to be heard’. If people don’t feel that then resentment builds up and that’s corrosive to teamwork and camaraderie.
AL: Preventing resentment and getting buy-in is important. As a leader, if you’ve mined out the conflicts, everyone’s got it out in the open. Even then, if one person is saying, ‘I think this won’t go down well with our people’ and someone else is saying, ‘You’re risking the life of our soldiers’ or ‘there is a danger this will go wrong’ the leader can still say, ‘I’ve heard all of your input, and considering all the different factors and all the different opinions, I’m still choosing to take this course of action’. This takes the heat out of the argument.
Not only that, those who have provided disagreement know that it’s been considered and valued, even if hasn’t obviously changed the plan. It’s been a civil and useful argument. It’s not been about people’s personalities; it’s been about the facts.
IL: One simple technique is mirroring or reflection: when you talk to somebod, and then replay their opinion back to them. You say something like, ‘Okay, so if I’m understanding you correctly, your view on this is ABC?’
Now that that does a couple of things. One is clarifying, because often you’ve got them wrong. They’ll say, ‘No, no. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s actually this.’ The other is it makes them feel heard. It shows that you’re interested in getting their view right. Then at the end, when you have to come down on one side or the other, you can say ‘Okay, so I understand we’ve got different opinions here. So Will thinks this, this is his view, and Sarah thinks this, this is her view. I’m going to come down on Will’s side of the argument.’ But you’ve shown your ability to summarise everybody’s opinion fairly. It will go a long way to make them feel like, ‘okay, he took a decision I don’t agree with, but he heard me’. And that makes people feel much more bound into the decision that’s made as a result.
AL: Do you think that’s important with the small things, as much as the big things? Is practicing good arguments something you should be trying all the time, even when it’s not for the most important issues?
IL: Absolutely. This is hugely important at work, in your marriage or your partnership, your family – everywhere. Just practicing it in little ways is going to make it easier for when the big, stressful disagreements come up. Be anti-fragile, as Nassim Taleb says. Unless you test yourself with many little stresses, when the big stress comes along it’s much more likely to break you. This is true with disagreement; you need to be practicing and modelling good disagreement in your team as often as possible on lots of little things. That way, when the really big disagreement comes up, you’re all in the habit.
It means not being afraid of showing passion in good natured disagreements. I think it’s a good habit to get into.
AL: For a commander, it’s important because you can’t choose the day when you suddenly want to be challenged. I’m worried that a moment will come when the most junior person has spotted a problem and isn’t willing to speak up, either in fear of derailing the plan or of undermining somebody senior, and as a result we miss some critical, life-saving information. I’ve got to allow people to challenge me on the small things because when it comes to the big things, that’s when they’re even less likely to challenge me.
IL:. In fact, not just allowing them but inviting them to challenge you. Aaying that if there’s anything that I’m going to criticize you for it’s that you’re not speaking up enough, you’re not disagreeing with me when you have doubts.
It’s hard when you’re a leader. You want to project authority. You can’t just say ‘Well, sorry guys, I’m just a bit crap at this’ and still expect those guys to follow you. Yet at the same time, people too often think a willingness to change your mind and listen to alternative opinions is a sign of weakness and lowers your authority. I don’t think it has to. In fact, the opposite. It can enhance your authority when you do that.
AL: That absolutely rings true. Back to the idea of anti-fragility. If you spend your entire life never being wrong or never accepting that you’re wrong, then you can feel threatened when people suggest you’re wrong.
By the time you are a senior officer you have run through a system that has consistently said, ‘you have great judgment, are very intelligent: the kind of person we want to command large organizations’. The system has validated your infallibility. And there’s danger in that. If your authority becomes more bound up with your ego and your infallibility you can end up in quite a difficult place when you find out you are wrong.
If you feel threatened by challenge not only are you in a bad place, because you’re going to feel threatened a lot these days, but you’re also missing out on all the good input you could be getting.
IL: There’s a good distinction that I borrowed from people who study decision-making in extreme environments, including military environments but also mountaineering expeditions and astronauts. A conflict can either send somebody into a threat state or a challenge state. In both heart rate increases and blood pressure increases. But the two responses are quite different mentally. In a threat state, people tend to narrow down their range of options very quickly. They start tunnelling in to the one thing they want to do. And most importantly, they tend to become very fixed on their initial position, saying ‘No, I’m going to come back to where I was. This is the truth. This is where I am.’
In a challenge state you get the same adrenaline kick of being in a disagreement; a very mild sense of threat, but it kicks you into gear. Cognitively, you become much sharper. You keep your options open and don’t necessarily cling to your initial position. So, if you’re not in a challenge state at all, if a disagreement is very dry and not particularly interesting, then you won’t get any of those benefits. If you go too far the other way and you are in a threat state you don’t get those benefits either. But somewhere in the middle, here is this challenge state. That’s where you want to be in an argument.
A lot of what we’re talking about is creating that culture within your team, within your organization, where people get into challenge states when there are disagreements and avoid feeling threatened.
AL: Seeing a team in that challenge state is beautiful thing to see: when a captain is challenging a lieutenant-colonel, then a major is chipping in, and the different subject matter experts are all jabbing each other around in a positive manner. Busting each other’s plans up because they are all trying to achieve the same thing and are all on the same side. Of course, what is amusing is that what you’re trying to do is make sure the enemy is perpetually in a threat state so that they are narrowing their options and therefore working less effectively. But in your own team, that’s the last thing you want to achieve.
IL: You’re right, it is a beautiful thing when you see it happening, because you really get a sense that disagreement becomes a form of respect. It becomes the opposite of putting someone down or slighting someone. Between professionals who have the same goal, I think it’s more respectful to disagree openly than it is to avoid it. It shows that I know you can take it. ‘I know you’re the kind of person who’s going to gain from this and learn from it; you’re not the kind of person who’s going to be personally offended by it’. When you see that culture in action, it’s a great thing.
AL: So of all you’ve learnt researching the book, what is the most important thing a military commander should take away?
IL: I think for a military commander, the most important thing is to model good disagreement yourself. Invite people on your team to disagree with you and show everybody in the room, literally or metaphorically, that you’re okay with it. In fact, you welcome it and you thrive on it, and you feel like you get benefit from it.
That’s the most important thing you can do because those behaviours will then filter down. Maybe the most important thing a leader can do is influence the culture of their organization or their team. Showing that you’re not scared of disagreement, that you don’t take it as a personal slight, and that it’s actually a great way for you to make better decisions. I think that is the most important thing to do. Although, of course, you might have a different view.