Career Woman

How to have a ‘sensible’ argument in the workplace


Unless you are one of those people who can make a drama out of a borrowed paperclip (there’s a diplomatic name for it: high-conflict people) then you might go months at a time without approaching anything like an argument at work. And if that’s the case, you may be doing it all wrong.

While most of us would rather avoid arguments altogether, and a fair few of us positively run away from them (no shame in that), healthy debate is good for relationships, creativity, and business. The key is in how you approach them.

It might be an issue of the way someone is behaving, or a professional dispute over how to proceed on a project. Letting it fester just makes it more difficult to resolve because all involved find their opinions getting fixed in place.

Instead, it can be more productive (and, in retrospect, a huge relief) to arrange a meeting, create a plan, and come to a solution that is just and acceptable to all.

Planning your argument

While emotions are a valid subject to argue about, arguing purely on the strength of passion is unlikely to get you far. Better to create a plan, write things down, and find a diplomatic way to put your case across – even if your case is about how you’ve been made to feel.

Call a meeting, preferably at a neutral area or venue, and distribute an agenda so that those who are coming can also prepare (and potentially suggest amendments, especially if they’re feeling just as unhappy as you).

Then do your research, which may mean going through business records or reading up on the topic and techniques in question. If it’s a disciplinary matter, you might want to look at contracts and the company code of conduct, and should make a record of where and how it has been transgressed. It can be difficult if you’ve been personally offended by somebody’s behavior, because your argument needs to be relatively neutral – sticking to facts and concrete events rather than referring to tendencies or personality traits.

Keep notes of your research to hand because it can be difficult to remember details in the heat of a ‘discussion.’ You might also prepare some parts of it as visuals, such as a graph or a list, which can be a powerful support for your argument.

Argument day

You might want to further prepare for your argument by practicing with a partner. That’s because, on the day, it will be important to stay calm, keep your voice level, and maintain open body language when all your instincts tell you to do the opposite.

Shouting, for example, can make it difficult to think, and not just because you’re drowning out your own inner voice. Raising your voice this way impairs the functioning of your prefrontal cortex, which is used for planning and decision-making. Gonna need those functions!

The moment you feel your voice rising, your arms folding, or your body tensing, it could be wise to suggest a break. Or you might want to use this moment to whip out the visuals. A good projection or white board diagram keeps everyone quiet for a moment and presents elements of your argument in plain black and white.

To keep things democratic, you can invite the other person to contribute, for example with the creation of a list of pros and cons regarding a project over which you’re arguing. Another way to get a breather is to ask questions: this will make your ‘opponent’ feel heard, and either their argument will disintegrate if you catch them off-guard, or they’ll provide an interesting response to make you re-consider your own position. Nothing wrong with that! Unless you’ve been victimized, the goal is not necessarily to win the argument but to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement.

When the dust settles

Things usually get better once a festering issue has been aired. You may even find you get on better with the person you argued with than you ever did before.

But if you happened to overstep the line in there or were proved wrong in your position, it makes sense to apologize and try to make things civil again before you move on.

If the argument wasn’t resolved, write an account of what happened and what was said to help you make sense of things and to prepare for a possible return-match – or disciplinary action. You (or they) might want to bring in a third-party arbitrator, be it your boss, someone from HR, the cleaner, or a professional from outside the business.

If you don’t often have arguments at work, it can be easy to get stuck without making progress or questioning the way things are done. To fully prepare yourself to start having effective arguments with successful (and dignified outcomes) try versing yourself in these excellent tips from

How to have a ‘sensible’ argument in the workplace

About Taylor Tomita'

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