Learning to disagree is creative collaboration.
How to Argue Smart
If that’s true, why have so many agencies perfected the “arguing” but not the “constructive” part? Maybe it’s easy to confuse egotism with creativity. Maybe it’s easier to talk than listen. Maybe, just maybe, emotional responses can be tricky to regulate.
Regardless, arguing constructively is a learned skill that most of us are still learning. Good news is, we’re all in this together.
A peek behind the curtain
Four eROI colleagues get all vulnerable, sharing arguments gone both wrong and right.
What’s the difference between constructive and destructive conflict?
I think the clearest difference is ego. When you feel comfortable putting your ego aside, then you can actually find the truth. Ever win an argument just because you were better at debating than the other person and not necessarily because you were right? Feels good maybe the first or second time, until you realize no one actually benefits.
Destructive disagreements end with people giving up. I think there are people who use destructive disagreements to get out of doing work. For them, it’s easier to blow the project up than to disagree and chart a new course.
Conflict manifests as a viable tool when it’s approached by both parties with an openness to learn, when individuals don’t need to fight to be heard.
Constructive disagreements lead to growth and new ideas. Destructive disagreements lead to fear, division, and stagnation.
Can you share a memorable creative conflict?
I had a recent conflict with a coworker who over-explained a simple concept. I let him know that his tone felt patronizing. Two things were at work here:
One: I am a female in a field that is mostly male. I have willingly participated in what we like to call the “imposter syndrome,” where I feel like I have to prove my validity to others on a semi-regular basis, even without being prompted.
Two: my colleague was operating under the assumption that his experience and position necessitates stating his opinion often and sometimes at the risk of tuning out others.
While things were tense at the moment, he approached me immediately after to discuss it.
Our resolution was simple and something out of an elementary school class. We both stated how the other’s actions made us feel, validated each other’s point of view, and genuinely apologized. I feel like we both came out of that discussion a wee bit smarter and more aware.
I’m recording in the studio with my band. We’re mixing drums and running the tracks through various compressors, limiters, reverbs, and other effects; each type of unit is called a “gain stage.” As you reach the peak of a gain stage, you get what is called “clipping” or “overdrive.”
The drum tone that our engineer was getting was clipping. I let him know that I didn’t want the drums to clip. His response was “It’s not clipping. It’s driving.”
This instantly became an argument not about the tone of the track or the methods used, but of nomenclature. If there was a red square on a screen, I would call it red and he would call it square. We’re speaking different languages.
How do you address conflict?
One-on-one, in-person, with minimal people in between.
I can become quite passionate, so sometimes I will ask a trusted colleague if my point of view is grounded in fact or emotion. If it’s the former, I work up a quick plan of action and approach that person. If it’s the latter, I give myself time to see if I still feel the same way. If I do, I approach that person.
Dealing with resentment is way tougher than dealing with a single misunderstanding.
My go-to move is to ask “Why?” Often, people are reacting to a conflict on a very surface level, whether from dislike for a person or a general desire to keep things as they are. When you ask why, you force that person to figure out what made them say that particular comment.
I prefer to ask questions and chip away at what we agree on to find the essence of our argument.
In a one-on-one, I am more likely to come to a consensus. In big groups—where loud voices tend to dominate the conversation—I find no need to voice my differing point of view.
What’s a useful approach to conflict in creative collaborations?
Hive mind or groupthink does not produce the best products or designs.
I’ve thought a lot about how people deal with conflict and why all people don’t just confront the person they have an issue with. The truth is, some people never experienced positive disagreement and the thought of confrontation is scary. But I do feel strongly that it is the place to start.
And begin with listening and validating the other person’s point of view. Not because you agree necessarily, but know that it’s their truth and it should not be discarded.
As designers, we’re told that when your work is picked apart and critiqued, that feedback is meant to strengthen your designs, not attack you.
What I often see among other disciplines (and even in our own) is that people don’t divorce feedback from themselves. I would encourage people to actively discuss this. Questioning your copy or strategy isn’t questioning you as a person. It’s trying to understand and strengthen your decisions or get you to consider alternatives.
Learn to speak the language of your peers. Come at an argument with empathy for the other’s position, knowledge, and language. Ask questions and refuse to assume anything.
Start by restating the overarching problem and goal. Avoid manipulation or using aggressive body language. Understand there are many ways to get from A to B. There is rarely one right way in this industry.
Healthy debate is when participants value the greater goal over their own ego, reputation, or credentials.