How being 100% certain of your own logic creates unnecessary workplace conflict, and what you can do about it

Published by Peter on

Today I have four questions for you:

  1. Are you for gun control?
  2. Are you in favor of banning abortion?
  3. Should corporations be forced to report on carbon emissions?
  4. Which is better, PC or Mac?

Actually, I don’t care what you think about any of those. (Except the last one. Mac rules, obviously, duh.)

Those are all topics I’ve recently seen people argue endlessly and angrily about without coming anywhere close to changing the other person’s mind.

Now I have two real questions for you:

  1. When was the last time you were able to change someone’s mind about any of those things?
  2. When you think back to your most fervent, emphatic, knock-down drag-out arguments, how did those arguments go? How did you feel? What did you say? What did you hear?

The reality is, on issues like these or even petty concerns like the office thermostat setting or what dessert to serve at the annual gala, unnecessary workplace conflict can be created when our colleagues and family members JUST WILL NOT SEE REASON.

It’s not that your colleagues and coworkers are wrong-thinking dunderheads, but that you both are dug in to positions derived from different core values.

When you’re dug in behind your wall, you can’t see the other person’s perspective, and they can’t see yours.

Gun control disrupts my holiday dinner

When she was a teenager, my oldest kid was a dyed-in-the-wool Second Amendmentist. Bona fide gun enthusiast. She didn’t own any guns, but if you showed her a silhouette she could give you the make, model, year of manufacture, magazine capacity, and fire rate of virtually any firearm from the 1940s to today.

My ex-wife and I were (and are) very anti-gun. I’ve fired guns at shooting ranges. It’s challenging and fun in the way darts or archery is challenging and fun. But I believe that virtually no one has a legitimate need to carry a gun in public. My ex feels more strongly—she would prefer that guns be banned entirely.

So, when the conversation at the dinner table turned to gun control—which it often did with school and other mass shootings on the rise—things frequently escalated to anger, and sometimes tears.

Instead of convincing anyone of anything, each side ended up more sure of their own righteousness and the other’s wrongness.

One day I was determined to get to the bottom of this conflict. Just me and my daughter, talking through it to the bitter end.

She and I had that conversation. After trying to dissect and dismantle her thinking for an hour or more, I was surprised at what I learned, which had nothing at all to do with gun control.

I learned that when we disagree with someone, we assume that their logic is flawed. The reality is that more often than not, their logic is often 100% solid.

My daughter’s logic was flawless. So was mine. If we both had logically sound arguments, how could we possibly reach diametrically opposed conclusions?

Since that conversation, which I recall vividly, I’ve noticed this same pattern with all kinds of arguments in all kinds of settings, between all kinds of people.

The signs that you’ve entrenched in a position

The word entrenchment probably brings to mind images of World War One. Two sides dug in, every advance resulting in death and destruction with little or no forward progress.

Definition of entrench (transitive verb)
1a: to place within or surround with a trench especially for defense
b: to place (oneself) in a strong defensive position
c: to establish solidly

Merriam-Webster

When two people are entrenched in their positions, neither will ever win. They will be reduced to tit-for-tat bickering, sniping at every minute detail. Meanwhile, the real issue rarely, if ever, gets discussed.

What are the signs of irreconcilable entrenchment? I’ll use my gun control conversation with my daughter to illustrate:

  • Sniping at details
    Banning bump-stocks will only reduce a mass shooting from scores dead to dozens dead. A one-week waiting period is not as good as a two-week waiting period.
  • Moving the goalposts
    If you agree that high-capacity firearms should be regulated, then you must agree that fire rate matters, too.
  • Quibbling over nuance, vocabulary, or syntax
    Is a “high capacity” magazine 12, 18, or 20 bullets? Does an “assault rifle” have a particular barrel length or type of grip?
  • False equivalency and infantilization
    Someone could murder someone else using a knife. What about knife control? You could kill someone with a brick. What about brick control? Are you going to control bricks?

I won’t add gaslighting to that list because gaslighting is a symptom of abusive and untrustworthy behavior, not entrenchment.

Alice is a hard one to win over.

At the heart of our gun control disagreement: conflicting goods

After a long, patient exploration, I was able to finally get to the heart of our disagreement. It had nothing to do with school safety, the morality of gun ownership, or even the possibility of a tyrannical state oppressing the populace.

It was about perspective. It was about two good ideals in conflict with each other: self-protection, and community safety.

My daughter’s view was based on the idea that an individual’s right to self-protection was more important than the community’s right to safety. My view was based on the idea that a community’s right to safety was more important than an individual’s right to self-protection.

Very likely, you had a negative reaction to one of those statements and are already shaking your head and forming arguments against it.

The fact is, however, that no amount of arguing over magazine size, the definition of “assault rifle,” bump stocks, background checks, or any other policy nuance would ever get to agreement.

Once we had identified the gap in our worldviews and could see that both our conclusions derived logically, we could begin to talk about theoretical compromises in a productive and non-confrontational way.

(We did not solve gun control, if you were wondering. I personally don’t think the United States ever will.)

How to climb out of our entrenchments and avoid unnecessary workplace conflict

Coming out of your trenches may not actually lead to agreement. And that’s okay.

What it does lead to, however, is better understanding, greater empathy, more open-mindedness, and at least the possibility of compromise.

How do arguing parties get untrenched? Here are some suggestions:

  • Assume honest intent
    Each party needs to take a deep breath and commit to believing that the other party is trying to do the right thing. The problem is we focus on the try (end point) rather than the right thing (origin). If you assume that the other person has honest motives, then you can begin uncovering the core issues that are driving them to the conclusions you think are wrong.
  • Become curious
    Ask inquisitive questions, with the intent of trying to understand. Too often we create questions that are actually veiled attacks on the other’s logic. We look to catch them out in an inconsistency, but instead we should be trying to find our way to their base premise, the core value that is driving their opinions.
  • Be honest
    Have you ever heard yourself say something that supported your argument, but which you didn’t actually believe? When that happens, you need to realize you are entrenched and back out of the dishonesty. Never make a point just to support your conclusion, if you don’t actually believe that point.
  • Don’t let unnecessary conflict be your fault
    In any argument, there is the possibility that you are the one who’s wrong. If you insist on entrenching in false righteousness rather than retreating gracefully (or even awkwardly), you will only perpetuate the conflict, tension, and pain of disagreement. Don’t let unnecessary conflict be your fault.
Annie tried to reach out.

Always try to choose “go high” instead of “go low”

Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high.” In the first 1:27 of this video, she describes what it means to stay true to your convictions but avoid contributing to “the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else.”

It’s not always possible to come to agreement, but in life and in the workplace we must be able to work together with civility, respect, and cooperation if we are to achieve great things.

Insisting on staying entrenched leads to self-righteousness, conflict, and extremism.

Honest dialog takes the participation of both sides. If you’re constantly trying to achieve some understanding but the other person just digs in deeper, you may be in a truly untenable position and need to find a way out.

But if you find you’re entrenched in a position, try being the first to take a deep breath, take a step back, and begin the process of disentrenching you both.

You may be surprised how much trust and cooperation you can create, even in the midst of profound disagreement.

Disentrenchment is a learnable skill

There’s nothing magical in any of this. It just takes patience, attention, and intent. And perhaps an objective outsider’s viewpoint.

This is something I see as a coach all the time when clients tell me about conflicts they’re trying to navigate. Often the problem is the client’s inability to see their own position as entrenchment. We get so fixated on how wrong the other person is, we lose sight of how right they may be.

If you’re experiencing something like this, especially if it seems a recurring theme in your life, let’s chat (click here for my contact page). I bet I can help like I’ve helped others.


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