Last week I went to see William Boyd’s new play ‘The Argument’ at the Hampstead Theatre. The title sells it short! In fact this one act drama features 10 arguments which take place within a troubled marriage, exploring the different eruptions which a relationship in crisis can provoke.  In his online introduction to the work, the author asserts that arguments are vital to relationships, that a relationship which is completely sunny and happy is not real life but a Walt Disney creation.

Is this also the case in business? Instinctively, while commercial relationships can often withstand disputes, they are perhaps not best served by this type of disruption. Arguments can challenge the mutual commitment and shared purpose which are the foundations of a successful partnership. In the heat of a disagreement we can say things which cannot be unsaid, which break the spell of harmony and raise doubts about whether this is the right relationship to drive the business forward.

Clearly, arguments can escalate and kill relationships. No surprises there. But, in my work, I also see the consequences of what is not said, by both clients and agencies. Whether it’s lack of contact, acknowledgment, praise, candour or criticism, if the overriding relationship imperative is that we get the best out of each other then we can increase the risk of falling short in this ambition by biting our lips and going with the flow.

I would not go so far as to suggest that, in a highly competitive working environment where speed and agility are prized more than ever before, stopping for an argument is axiomatically beneficial. But sometimes a good argument is exactly what is required to ensure that an important conversation takes place at the appropriate time, with focus and intensity.

A healthy argument demonstrates that you have strong views you are willing, and feel safe enough, to share. You are invested in the relationship, you care about what you’re trying to achieve together; you can perhaps see impediments which stand in the way of success or feel that the enterprise is veering off course. You want to clear the air and trust the other party sufficiently to tackle the issues head-on.

So what makes a good argument? And that’s the key point. Not that you argue but how you argue. It is possible to argue without fighting. From my experience, here are a few tips:

  • Show respect – this is the defining variable in managing the threat level of an argument
    • Listen without interruption
    • Remember Habit #5 from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’
  • Be clear about your point and stick to it
    • Keep other people and issues out of it
    • It’s easier to fix one problem than several
  • Don’t get personal
    • Consider your words carefully, avoid threats and name-calling
    • Take a time out if your anger starts to boil over but don’t walk away completely
  • Entertain the idea that there is a new, better place
    • A difference of opinion can be a creative dialogue which deepens a relationship
    • Don’t fight to be right, to make someone wrong (win-win is good)
  • Establish the ‘non-negotiables’ – a highly effective disarmer of an argument
    • Asking the question shows enormous respect and the resulting pre-argument discussion can sometimes unlock previously bolted doors
    • And if there are points upon which someone won’t budge, best to know

So a good argument can have a favourable impact in business and in marriage. As Meredith, the wife in The Argument’s central liaison seeks to emphasise: “Arguing is good – it means we’re engaging with each other.” And she’s right because constructive engagement builds rapport and trust which in turn build relationships.