Buster Benson, entrepreneur and former product leader, has written “Why Are We Yelling?”. In this book, he covers ‘the art of productive disagreement’. Most of us are weary of disagreement, so Benson’s claim that disagreement can be productive is intriguing. The book begins with some of the common misconceptions with respect to disagreement:
- Arguments are bad – They aren’t bad, but they can’t be unproductive. We aren’t taught how to argue productively.
- Arguments change minds – We can really change only two things: our own minds and our own behaviour.
- Arguments end – Arguments have deep roots and will always find a way to grow back again.
Benson then flips these misconceptions to make the case for the “gift of disagreement”:
- Truth 1: Arguments aren’t bad – They’re signposts to issues that need our attention.
- Truth 2: Arguments aren’t about changing minds – They are about bringing minds together.
- Truth 3: Arguments don’t end – They have deep roots and will pop back up again and again, asking us to engage with them.
I thought it was refreshing to read how Benson starts dissecting product disagreement by zooming in on anxiety. He explains how anxiety sparks “when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way” and offers ways to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement (see Fig. 1 below).
Fig. 1 – How to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement – Taken from: Buster Benson – Why Are We Yelling?, pp. 54 – 55:
- When you notice anxiety, pause and ask yourself: are you anxious about what is true, what is meaningful, or what is useful?
- Ask the other party the same question. Do they give the same answer or something different?
- Narrate out loud what each of you is anxious about (this buys more time and slows things down). Reiterate how each of you answered the question to see if that leads to new connections for yourself or the other person.
- Check to see if either of you is willing to switch to what the other is anxious about. Who has more cognitive dissonance happening and could use the other’s help?
There are a number of internal voices that come to life in the case of a disagreement. Benson cites the three main ones and explains how these tend to be culturally engrained:
- The voice of power – This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Take it or leave it” or “My way or the highway”. The voice of power isn the ultimate conflict-resolution strategy, because you can’t argue with sheer force. Benson states that this what power does – it forcibly closes down arguments and ends conflict in your favour, which is an undeniable evolutionary advantage.
- The voice of reason – This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Why?” or “That doesn’t add up”. The voice of reason is all about using reasons to shut down a debate. Benson argues that the voice of reason works best in situations where you have disagreements with people who share respect for the same higher authority or are part of the same group or organisation that your reasons draw from.
- The voice of avoidance – This is the internal voice which tells you things such as “I would prefer not to” or “Leave me out of it”. Benson describes how “conflict avoiders have identified flaws in the voices of power and reason and so have chosen to address conflicts by simply refusing to participate in them in the first place.”
Core to the book is the fourth voice that Benson introduces: the voice of possibility. The voice of possibility seeks to make conflict productive. This voice resonates in questions like:
- What are we missing?
- What else is possible?
- What else can we do with what we have?
- Who else can we bring into the conversation to give us a new perspective?
Benson makes the point that the voice of possibility encourages us very explicitly not to do what the other three voices – power, reason and avoidance – have made habitual in us, which is to find a way to uproot and kill the conflict. We need to, Benson argues, develop ‘honest bias’. He also offers a set of useful guidelines with respect to product disagreement:
- Watch how anxiety sparks – These sparks are signposts to our own internal map of dangerous ideas. Notice the difference between big and small sparks.
- Talk to your internal voices – Most of us have internal voices that map to the voices of power, reason, and avoidance. Get to know yours so you can recognise their suggestions as merely suggestions, not orders.
- Develop honest bias – There is no cure for bias, but we can develop an honest relationship to our own bias with self-reflection, frequent requests for thoughtful feedback, and a willingness to address feedback directly, however it comes.
- Speak for yourself – Don’t speculate about others, especially groups that you don’t belong to. Instead, seek out a respectable member of any group you might otherwise speculate about and invite them to your table to speak for themselves. Listen generously.
- Ask questions that invite surprising answers – Think of big wide-open questions that create space for divergent perspectives to be heard. Measure the quality of your questions by the honesty and eloquence that they draw out from the person answering them.
- Build arguments together – Structure arguments into evidence of the problems and opportunities (to support conflicts of head), diverse perspectives within the argument (to support conflicts of heart),and proposals to address the problems and opportunities ((to support conflicts of hand).
- Cultivate neutral spaces – A neutral space is inviting; it opens up big questions and allows arguments to strengthen and the fruit of disagreement to grow. It creates wiggle room for perspectives to shift and expand without punishment or shame. It reminds us that it’s okay to be uncertain indefinitely and it’s okay to act while uncertain.
- Accept reality, then participate in it – We can’t change reality from the realm of wishful thinking and wilful blindness. We can’t hide from dangerous ideas. We’re right in the mess with all of it, getting our heads, hearts, and hands dirty. The only way out is through.
Main learning point: ‘Why We Are Yelling?’ successfully demystifies the common notion that disagreement needs to be painful and unproductive. In this book, Buster Benson describes the rationale behind this notion – through three, culturally engrained voices – and introduces a powerful new voice; the voice of possibility.