How to Argue Better


Every group aspires to be the kind of place where the best idea wins.  The reality is, most fall short of that goal. 

The problem is, it’s really hard to argue well. Like any collision, every argument brings risk — will it damage our relationships? Hurt our status? As a result, many of us tend to avoid arguments, or (worse) engage half-heartedly, surrendering our position at the first sign of pushback.

Which raises a question: is there a better way? 

The key, I think, is the way you think about the argument.   We instinctively see argument as a negative — a tension that needs to be resolved. Strong cultures, however, flip that on its head. They view argument as a continual exercise, part of the never-ending process of getting feedback, locating the truth, and getting better.  Argument isn’t the disruption to the status quo — it is the status quo. It’s not a problem to be solved; it’s a craft that you practice together. 

I remember listening to a high-ranking member of the San Antonio Spurs front office argue with a coach over shot selection — basically, whether it was smarter to shoot open two-pointers, or to always try for a three-pointer. The two went at it, hammer and tongs, for half an hour — a loud, energetic volley of argument and ideas and numbers, each side pressing its case, offering evidence, appealing to reason and emotion. Then, when it was finished, they made plans to get dinner together. It was awesome.

So here, in no particular order, are a few tips borrowed from successful groups for the craft of arguing better:

1) Be open about it. Don’t hide behind closed doors; instead seek to hold arguments in public places, where it becomes normalized.

2) Aim to be energetic and civil. Sarcasm and personal attacks are off limits.

3) Keep it focused on the issue at hand, and don’t let one argument expand into other areas.

4) End by affirming your connection. A lot of the arguments I witnessed ended with some version of, “I’m glad we can talk like this.” This is not just a nice sound-bite; it also happens to be true.