Win Arguments Without Arguing

“Absolutely Not!”
Years ago, I was mentally preparing my defense and counter-attack with a peer (I’ll call her Anna). I was the VP of Services and she was running Sales. In order to win a new customer, she wanted to give away “free Services.” It was a typical negotiation situation where she had her position (e.g. “the company needed the revenue and a new customer) and I had mine (giving away Services would jeopardize our revenue recognition, kill my margin, etc.). I was ready to dig my heels in, already determined what my “bottom line” was, and wasn’t going to budge. I’ve had these same debates and arguments dozens of times so I felt I was an expert at “justifying” my position. There was no way that I was going to give in to Anna’s demands.

Suddenly, I was reminded of the something I learned in The Henderson Group’s Complete Communicator workshop. I had attended just weeks before. As my conversation with Anna began, I started listening to what she was saying and tried to understand why she was asking for what she needed from me. The most amazing thing happened. Anna came to my position without me having an ugly argument with her about how I was right and she was wrong!

The Problem with Being “Right”
As early as I can remember, I was taught to fight for what I believe in. While that can be a good principle to guide your life direction, “fighting with others” is a recipe for disaster in your job and career. Even if you “win” an argument or debate, you will “lose” because you’ve damaged a professional relationship. Creating an “enemy” will come back to bite you at some time in the future.



The Difference Between Boxing and Ballroom Dancing…

While boxing can be a form of entertainment for many, the result is usually a bloody mess. When you’re faced with opposition, don’t create a boxing match. Although knocking out your adversary may bring personal satisfaction, you’ll have a much better outcome if he isn’t “out for the count.”

The perfect metaphor for what I experienced with Anna can be explained in this way. Ballroom dancing is full of drama and passion by both partners where each movement is complemented by the other’s. Moreover, instead of using this emotion and power against each other, the outcome is positive for both.

I didn’t have to expend much energy (or political capital) at all with Anna. By demonstrating that I heard her and understood her position, she retracted from her aggressive approach towards me – which led to a great result for both of us!

Focus on Respect vs. Being Right
Moshe Garielov, CEO of Xilinx, told me that one of his most important career lessons was to “focus on respect vs. being right.” Fortunately, he realized that the way he treated people directly impacted how they felt about him, and ultimately, how they viewed him as a leader. As a manager, you have position power over others and it’s very easy to flex your political muscle to get others to comply with what you are demanding of them. On the other hand, it’s hard to resist the urge to direct and let others come into alignment with you.

In my situation with Anna, it was extremely difficult to keep my mouth shut (and ears open) and not cut her off with my counter-points. I suppressed my urge to “fight back” – to lay out all the reasons why I could not do what Anna was asking for. When I started repeating back to her what I had heard and why those things were important to her, something very different happened. Instead of a tense, emotion-charged discussion (where both are talking over each other) there was calmness to our interaction. We replaced a relationship-damaging boxing match with a relationship-building dialog.

One of Steven Covey’s most famous quotes is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Turning this into practice gives you a powerful tool that can be applied in many areas of application. I’ve seen the same results in sales situations as I had in my conflict situation with Anna i.e. the person that I was negotiating with “gave in” to me without me having to present my terms. Demonstrating “understanding” is most effective in diffusing the tension that comes along with back and forth counter-proposals. When you show someone that you are agreeable then you make it easier for them to give you the benefit of the doubt… and then some!

These communication techniques are so effective that we’ve adapted them to high-tech executive influence scenarios in our Executive Communicator workshop.

If you have similar experiences or advice on how to create a “win-win” from a bad situation, please share your comments below. If you liked any of the ideas in this post, please use the social media icons to share on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere.


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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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