At a glance
Updated 8 March 2023
Reasonable people working in an uncertain environment – such as a business in a competitive market – will likely disagree from time to time. Good arguments can make for better decisions.
A classic 1997 Harvard Business Review article was titled “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight”.
Its overarching point: people can argue well to find better solutions or argue badly and shred relationships. If you want to criticise someone else’s idea, what’s the best way to do it?
Here are nine tested tips to bear in mind as you line up that foolish concept for destruction...
1. Check that you really know as much about your argument as you think you do.
Kathryn Schulz, in her 2011 book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes that when someone disagrees with us, we usually just assume they are ignorant.
But can you really explain how your own suggested course of action would work?
The physicist Richard Feynman recommended writing out an explanation of the topic, as if you were trying to teach it to a new student, and then simplifying your language as much as you can – a trick now known as the Feynman Technique.
2. Understand the personality of the person on the other side of the argument.
Jonathan Herring in his 2012 book How to Argue advises: “Think carefully about what arguments the other person will listen to. What are their preconceptions? Which kinds of arguments do they find convincing?”
3. Ask the other person to explain how their idea would work, step by step.
Not only will you have a clearer idea of what they think, but their attitude may change, too.
Research published in 2012 suggests that people typically know less about the workings of their preferred solutions than they think they do.
“Asking people to explain policies in detail both undermined the illusion of explanatory depth and led to attitudes that were more moderate,” the researchers wrote in Psychological Science.
The next four rules come from social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (best known for the famous tit-for-tat strategy for solving the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory).
Philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently been trying to popularise these rules, which Rapoport called “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”.
4. Try to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
5. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
6. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
7. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Remember that the ultimate aim is to find the best idea, which may mean moving away from your own position.
8. Look for any creative solutions that take another route. Herring suggests asking: “Is it time to look at the issue from another angle … Is a compromise possible?”
9. Consider introducing other alternatives even if you don’t support them. The authors of the 1997 Harvard Business Review article argued that in team environments, such an approach diffused conflict by making the choices less black and white and leaving participants with more room to change position.