You are wrong. I am right.

16 01 2011

I read a great book recently called “The World Cafe; Shaping The Future Through Conversations That Matter” (by Brown and Isaacs). It’s all about a new form of dialogue that allows people to access a group’s collective intelligence, and was a fascinating read. If it all sounds a bit woolly, the principles are all heavily grounded in research and case studies, and I plan to try the approach out soon, and will let you know how I get on.

Andrew smiled at the World Cafe, safe in the knowledge he was absolutely, hundred percent, right

Anyway, one of the points that really made me stop and think was a passage around people fighting to prove they are right, and in particular pointing out that you may well win the argument, but in doing so, what has been the cost?

This seemed to resonate with me in my capacity as (former!) lawyer. It might be a stereotype, but lord knows lawyers do like to prove themselves right. Maybe it’s the type of people who are attracted to the law, maybe it’s the training and experiences that lawyers have, but if you put five lawyers in a room, I bet at least two of the five would argue black was white if the other three had already asserted that white was, in fact, white.

I started to think about this from two different angles. Firstly, developing the ideas in the book around the impact on relationships and individuals resulting from a dogmatic and “robust” approach to an argument. How many people have notionally “lost” an argument, and then (a) sat and simmered, wishing ill on the victor; and (b) not been convinced that they were in fact wrong anyway?

Given the turbulent nature of the legal market today, there are of course an increasing number of challenges that law firms and lawyers face, and if many of these end up in arguments and disagreements, what does this do to the web of relationships that underpins the organisation (which are of course critical in a knowledge-based organisation), as well as the morale and energy of those working there?

Often when a person expresses a point of view, if it is attacked, they will dig their heels in and defend their position more passionately, rather than take on board an alternative perspective.

Many of the classic negotiating texts (like “Getting to Yes“) are based on ways round this problem, and there is a heap of  research from the psychology of influence that can help explain this (Cialdini is one of my favourite authors here) – in essence society likes people to behave predictably. As a result many countries encourage people to behave consistently, and consequently once a point of view is stated, people will fight to defend it (and appear consistent) rather than change their mind.

This brings me on to my second stream of consciousness, which is based on a lot of Edward De Bono’s work around how people think in Western society. He aims a lot of criticism around our preference for “socratic argument”, where a selection between two competing ideas is made through knocking down the opposing viewpoint, rather than constructively exploring the issue and looking for alternatives.

In a law firm, where colleagues are often competing for resources, would it be possible to examine these challenges more collaboratively, or is that niave?

What if the disagreement is with a client? Or another team? Is the issue resolved with one party “right” and the other “wrong”? The dynamic is undoubtedly different from being across a negotiating table, but often the behaviour is very similar, and not everyone is a collaborative negotiator.

When working as an in-house counsel, when problems arose I was much less interested in pointing fingers, and more interested in sorting out the consequences quickly and effectively, working out how the problem arose (the framework in the book “Difficult Conversations” calls this assessing “contribution”) and then making sure we (collectively) avoided a re-run. I found this productive, and the external counsel took a similar problem-solving approach to drive a deeper relationship and more effective service delivery. I don’t pretend it was perfect, but I do believe it was an improvement on the blame game, even though I didn’t get as many opportunities to demonstrate I was right (which of course I was!).

I hope that has provoked some thinking and would be interested in any comments you may have. Please note however, that if you express a different opinion to me, you will be wrong and I will be right………