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This article was originally published by HR Director

By Louis White

March 31, 2022

Robust discussion can be productive when a strategic and tactical decision are at play, as long as the debate stays on topic and doesn’t get personnel. In the creative industries, it is not uncommon for tempers to flare over artistic differences, with a resolution – usually only to one party’s satisfaction – never far away.

But when does an argument at work go too far? And how can HR mediate if it does?

“The first question to ask is what debates should take place in the office?” Amantha Imber, organisational psychologist, and founder of behavioural science consultancy, Inventium, told HRD. “Well, debates about ideas, the merits of different ideas, as opposed to debates about things that are personal, are definitely things that should take place in the office. Having a culture where people do feel comfortable expressing different points of view has been very strongly linked to driving innovation, so this is very important.”

Be Pannell, associate professor at the Australian College of Applied Professions, believes that you need to separate the level of debates.

“There are two things that differentiate healthy and toxic debates: listening and not making things personal,” Pannell said. “Workplaces that encourage healthy disagreement and debate are known for finding innovative solutions to problems because different perspectives are considered.

“If we don’t really listen and interrupt the other person to defend or push our point of view, it tends to escalate the discussion into an argument. When we move into the blame game, attacking the other person, they are likely to feel threatened and dig their heals in even more.”

When should arguing be curtailed?

While this may seem obvious, it may surprise people to know that bystanders often stand back and don’t want to get involved, letting the situation get out of hand. Once the arguing moves beyond discussion about work and starts getting personal, it is time to end the conversation immediately.

“It should be stopped when emotions are high, because generally if emotions are running high, debates will generally not be as constructive, and generally people will be more closed in terms of listening to other people’s points of view,” Imber added.

Pannell is in agreement.

“A simple rule of thumb is that arguing should be stopped when debates become heated and personal,” she said.

“Research shows that when we feel attacked, we are likely to want to fight back, and our critical reasoning and people skills are offline. We have all said things we regret in the moment. Taking time out to calm down, consider the point the other person was trying to make, as well as reassess our own approach, is vital to maintain good workplace communication.”

The key here is to separate fighting individuals and let them cool down. It is important that neutral parties, such as human resources, are able to speak to each individual to understand what lead to the confrontation in the first place.

It is not a matter of taking sides but understanding the complexity of human nature and the issues at hand.

“Like all workplace behaviour, it’s important to consider the underlying issue that’s causing a person to argue a point excessively,” Pannell added. “Usually, it’s because it’s very important to them and they do not feel like they are being heard.

“Slowing down these conversations to ensure that the other person gets the chance to express their point and to receive clarification that their point has been heard can relieve the tension.

As a leader, you can respond to their points with statements such as ’so what I’m hearing you say is’ or ‘I’m not sure if I understand you, can you please clarify’.”

When is constructive criticism acceptable?

People can often label arguing as constructive criticism getting out of hand. I think that is a tenuous bow. Constructive criticism normally comes during or after a project, a client meeting or in a review of some sort. It is usually associated with a someone at a higher level directing it to a more junior associate.

“Well, I think firstly, it’s a really good idea to check if someone is actually open to feedback,” Imber added. “If you have something constructive or negative to say, inviting the person to accept feedback from you is really important. Otherwise, it’s probably a waste of your time to deliver it. Then really thinking through what’s the best way to deliver that feedback, making it not about the person and making sure it is about an action or a behaviour or something that can be changed as opposed to a personality trait, which is harder to change.”

There are some basic steps a person can take when it comes to delivering constructive criticism.

“The way criticism is delivered is what makes it constructive or destructive and there’s some simple steps to follow when providing criticism or feedback to another,” Pannell added. “Firstly, recognise and name what is already working; secondly, stick to the facts and avoid personal attacks and thirdly, offer the feedback in a way that supports the goal you are both working towards.

“When we use language that is more suggestive than directive, it is more readily received by the other person, such as ‘have you considered’ or ‘could you also include’ or ‘I think we need to include’.”

Healthy arguing, that sticks to the topic and facts, has a place in the office, just don’t let it get out of hand, HR.