Why your workplace arguments aren't as effective as you'd like

Open organizations rely on open conversations. These common barriers to productive argument often get in the way.
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Transparent, frank, and often contentious arguments are part of life in an open organization. But how can we be sure those conversations are productive—not destructive?

This is the second installment of a two-part series on how to argue and actually achieve something. In the first article, I mentioned what arguments are (and are not), according to author Sinnott-Armstrong in his book Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. I also offered some suggestions for making arguments as productive as possible.

In this article, I'll examine three barriers to productive arguments that Sinnott-Armstrong elaborates in his book: incivility, polarization, and language issues. Finally, I'll explain his suggestions for addressing those barriers.


"Incivility" has become a social concern in recent years. Consider this: As a tactic in arguments, incivility can have an effect in certain situations—and that's why it's a common strategy. Sinnott-Armstrong notes that incivility:

  • Attracts attention: Incivility draws people's attention in one direction, sometimes to misdirect attention from or outright obscure other issues. It redirects people's attention to shocking statements. Incivility, exaggeration, and extremism can increase the size of an audience.

  • Energizes: Sinnott-Armstrong writes that seeing someone being uncivil on a topic of interest can generate energy from a state of powerlessness.

  • Stimulates memory: Forgetting shocking statements is difficult; they stick in our memory more easily than statements that are less surprising to us.

  • Excites the powerless: The groups most likely to believe and invest in someone being uncivil are those that feel they're powerless and being treated unfairly.

Unfortunately, incivility as a tactic in arguments has its costs. One such cost is polarization.


Sinnott-Armstrong writes about five forms of polarization:

  • Distance: If two people's or groups' views are far apart according to some relevant scale, have significant disagreements and little common ground, then they're polarized.

  • Differences: If two people or groups have fewer values and beliefs in common than they don't have in common, then they're polarized.

  • Antagonism: Groups are more polarized the more they feel hatred, disdain, fear, or other negative emotions toward other people or groups.

  • Incivility: Groups tend to be more polarized when they talk more negatively about people of the other groups.

  • Rigidity: Groups tend to be more polarized when they treat their values as indisputable and will not compromise.

  • Gridlock: Groups tend to be more polarized when they're unable to cooperate and work together toward common goals.

And I'll add one more form of polarization to Sinnott-Armstrong's list:

  • Non-disclosure: Groups tend to be more polarized when one or both of the groups refuses to share valid, verifiable information—or when they distract each other with useless or irrelevant information. One of the ways people polarize is by not talking to each other and withhold information. Similarly, they talk on subjects that distract us from the issue at hand. Some issues are difficult to talk about, but by doing so solutions can be explored.

Language issues

Identifying discussion-stoppers like these can help you avoid shutting down a discussion that would otherwise achieve beneficial outcomes.

Language issues can be argument-stoppers Sinnott-Armstrong says. In particular, he outlines some of the following language-related barriers to productive argument.

  • Guarding: Using words like "all" can make a statement unbelievable; words like "sometimes" can make a statement too vague.

  • Assuring: Simply stating "trust me, I know what I'm talking about," without offering evidence that this is the case, can impede arguments.

  • Evaluating: Offering an evaluation of something—like saying "It is good"―without any supporting reasoning.

  • Discounting: This involves anticipating what the another person will say and attempting to weaken it as much as possible by framing an argument in a negative way. (Contrast these two sentences, for example: "Ramona is smart but boring" and "Ramona is boring but smart." The difference is subtle, but you'd probably want to spend less time with Ramona if you heard the first statement about her than if you heard the second.)

Identifying discussion-stoppers like these can help you avoid shutting down a discussion that would otherwise achieve beneficial outcomes. In addition, Sinnott-Armstrong specifically draws readers' attention to two other language problems that can kill productive debates: vagueness and ambiguity.

  • Vagueness: This occurs when a word or sentence is not precise enough and having many ways to interpret its true meaning and intent, which leads to confusion. Consider the sentence "It is big." "It" must be defined if it's not already obvious to everyone in the conversation. And a word like "big" must be clarified through comparison to something that everyone has agreed upon.

  • Ambiguity: This occurs when a sentence could have two distinct meanings. For example: "Police killed man with axe." Who was holding the axe, the man or the police? "My neighbor had a friend for dinner." Did your neighbor invite a friend to share a meal—or did she eat her friend?

Overcoming barriers

To help readers avoid these common roadblocks to productive arguments, Sinnott-Armstrong recommends a simple, four-step process for evaluating another person's argument.

  1. Observation: First, observe a stated opinion and its related evidence to determine the precise nature of the claim. This might require you to ask some questions for clarification (you'll remember I employed this technique when arguing with my belligerent uncle, which I described in the first article of this series).

  2. Hypothesis: Develop some hypothesis about the argument. In this case, the hypothesis should be an inference based on generally acceptable standards (for more on the structure of arguments themselves, also see the first part of this series).

  3. Comparison: Compare that hypothesis with others and evaluate which is more accurate. More important issues will require you to conduct more comparisons. In other cases, premises are so obvious that no further explanation is required.

  4. Conclusion: From the comparison analysis, reach a conclusion about whether your hypothesis about a competing argument is correct.

In many cases, the question is not whether a particular claim is correct or incorrect, but whether it is believable. So Sinnott-Armstrong also offers a four-step "believability test" for evaluating claims of this type.

  1. Expertise: Does the person presenting the argument have authority in an appropriate field? Being a specialist is one field doesn't necessarily make that person an expert in another.

  2. Motive: Would self-interest or other personal motives compel a person to withhold information or make false statements? To confirm one's statements, it might be wise to seek a totally separate, independent authority for confirmation.

  3. Sources: Are the sources the person offers as evidence of a claim recognized experts? Do those sources have the expertise on the specific issue addressed?

  4. Agreement: Is there agreement among many experts within the same specialty?

Let's argue

If you really want to strengthen your ability to argue, find someone that totally disagrees with you but wants to learn and understand your beliefs.

When I was a university student, I would usually sit toward the front of the classroom. When I didn't understand something, I would start asking questions for clarification. Everyone else in the class would just sit silently, saying nothing. After class, however, other students would come up to me and thank me for asking those questions—because everyone else in the room was confused, too.

Clarification is a powerful act—not just in the classroom, but during arguments anywhere. Building an organizational culture in which people feel empowered to ask for clarification is critical for productive arguments (I've given presentations on this topic before). If members have the courage to clarify premises, and they can do so in an environment where others don't think they're being belligerent, then this might be the key to a successful and productive argument.

If you really want to strengthen your ability to argue, find someone that totally disagrees with you but wants to learn and understand your beliefs. Then, practice some of Sinnott-Armstrong's suggestions. Arguing productively will enhance transparency, inclusivity, and collaboration in your organization—leading to a more open culture.

Read the first part

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Ron McFarland has been working in Japan for over 40 years, and he's spent more than 30 of them in international sales, sales management training, and expanding sales worldwide. He's worked in or been to more than 80 countries.

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