One of my earliest heroes (somewhere between Han Solo and Charlie Kaufman) was Socrates, who — although perhaps unfit to make the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs — elevated dialectic into the realm of epistemology, where it remained an inviolate pillar of Western logic until the emergence of Larry King, apparently sometime in the late 14th century.

The Death of Socrates

A well-reasoned Socratic argument is the project manager’s Remington flat-head; there are few problems which won’t yield to patient, reductive logic… but those that won’t are probably gummed up in ego, bias, fear and/or office politics, and will need to be resolved using less elegant means.

Fortunately or unfortunately, companies tend to be structured in such a way as to automatically resolve most disputes through rank: if your boss disagrees with you, you lose; if your staff disagrees with you, they lose.

Peer arguments are a problem. Whether it’s your counterpart in another department, or a particularly troublesome stakeholder who won’t follow process, it’s difficult to win concessions from someone who doesn’t listen to reason. These are the sorts of arguments that get arbitrated by your boss, or worse, by your boss’ boss, and if you’re lucky you’ll get an hour in a conference room to argue your case in front of your opponent.

I’ve lost a lot of these arguments over the years, and in the process I’ve learned some useful tactics for resolving peer disputes (usually as a result of having them used on me). I’ve also learned a few unsavory tactics which I’m sure Socrates wouldn’t endorse.

Here’s how to not lose a fight with a peer:

  1. This ought to be self-evident, but it’s worth emphasizing: if at all possible, resolve the issue before walking into that conference room. Any argument which goes up the chain of command is an argument which calls into question your ability to problem-solve on your own, and this may well cost you money in your next performance review. So before booking that meeting, do two things: question whether you really believe your position to be correct, and if so, make every attempt to reason with your opponent face-to-face. (No long-winded emails with half a dozen people on the CC.)
  2. If your opponent won’t relent, and won’t agree to disagree, a fight is probably inevitable. Before you enter the conference room, understand that your goal isn’t to win the argument, but to not lose; a stalemate means your position is still valid and you’ll get another chance to seek resolution outside Thunderdome, so focus on not being shot down. There’s usually no need, but plenty of risk, in going for the kill.
  3. It may sound like Sun Tzu 101, but you should know your opponent. Make an effort to understand every facet of the opposing argument, even if it means sparking a pre-debate to get everything out in the open. (Whatever you do, don’t then fall for your own stratagem and unleash all your own counterarguments: listen, learn, wait.)
  4. Invite as many additional stakeholders into the meeting as possible. It’s very, very difficult for most people to remain silent throughout an entire meeting, which means more talk and less decision-making — if you can wait out the clock, you’ll leave the meeting with  a stalemate.
  5. Come with data, and bring it in hard copy, not on a laptop. A loose sheaf of papers (no staples or clips) can be an effective prop against an opponent who shows up empty-handed.

Now here’s how to fight a bit dirtier — use as your conscience dictates:

  1. It’s probably the oldest trick in the book: assuming you have the luxury of being able to set the meeting time, push it out at least a couple weeks and then reschedule it sooner at the last possible moment, denying your opponent the opportunity to prepare. This won’t help if your opponent is a natural improviser, but it won’t hurt either.
  2. Avoid sitting directly opposite your opponent, which provides a convenient crosshair for his/her arguments. The two best positions in the room are (a) next to the decision-maker, or (b) on the side of your opponent opposite the decision-maker, so that your opponent is forced to split his/her attention. If you happen to be immediately next to your opponent, edge in as close as possible. Most people instinctively shy away from imposed proximity, which works against an aggressive opponent.
  3. If you’ve managed to add attendees to your meeting, you’ll know in advance who’s going to be there and what their biases are. Obviously, if you can invite people who support your argument, that’s ideal — but it’s unlikely that you’ll be allowed to show up with your own posse. So your next choice will be your enemy’s enemies — those who disagree with your opponent on other issues and will hijack the debate to score points for their own cause (thereby keeping your opponent on the defensive). If you can’t get any of these sorts of people into the room, then your final option will be people who simply have a different agenda and can muddy the waters, allowing you to wait out the clock.
  4. Defeating a straw man argument can appear to strengthen your position. If you have strong data to support one of your arguments, try quietly floating the opposite conclusion around the office beforehand — if you’re lucky, this easily rebutted argument will emerge from your opponent during debate, and if not, someone else in the room may offer it as an opportunity to contribute.
  5. When studying your opponent’s arguments beforehand, take note of repetitive verbal tics. Many people have a handful of favorite cliches — analogies, idioms or jargon with which they shore up their arguments, and on which they subconsciously rely when flustered. Learn your opponent’s vocabulary and then, when arguing your case, try taking some of this familiar language off the table. For instance, if you have an opponent who favors analogies involving houses (e.g. the project plan is like the floorplan, the server infrastructure is the foundation, the presentation level code is the aluminum siding and roof shingles, etc.), start the meeting by asking “can we avoid talking about this problem like it’s a physical structure, since it’s a misleading analogy?” Your opponent will either struggle to make his/her point in another way, or lapse accidentally into the analogy which you’ve already devalued.

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