Dear Colleagues


Ferocious and violent arguments are the part of life in engineering. Needless to say, they are rarely productive. And often very damaging to relationships and self esteem. A few suggestions on breaking an argument in its tracks and focussing on positive productive outcomes  follows….


An Argument over Defective Software

I have been involved in many meaningless arguments which have got heated and always regretted the unproductivity of them all. I remember having a vigorous exchange of views on testing control software for a large gas-fired power station. The project manager didn’t believe a black start was necessary to test the software in its entirety as he felt it (the software) was fine in the preliminary tests. I didn’t trust the software and wanted to do a thorough and meticulous test under real world conditions.

This resulted in such an acrimonious exchange between me and the project manager that we forgot to pay the bill for the café we were arguing in. Much to our huge embarrassment. This cooled the argument down dramatically once the waitress accused us of avoiding payment for our meal. Fortunately, I won the argument and we did test the software and it was confirmed that it was catastrophically defective. However we could have got there without a huge argument – something which damaged our professional relationship for many months.


Productive Conflict is Good

Personally, I believe productive conflict is a good thing. In any business, you don’t want everyone agreeing and ‘walking into the sunset together’. It is vital that everyone has a strong professionally-based viewpoint and we then iterate to the best solution. However, the process in arriving at this best solution can often result in an acrimonious argument.

What often happens is that in the haste to respond to someone, no  reference is made to what the other person has said. Instead, you simply jump to your position and ignore all mention of what the other person has said. You often see this when a politician is being interviewed - possibly in a confrontational way. Rather than answer a specific question or respond to a specific point, the politician simply jumps to what they want to say. (Which is often of no relevance to the topic under consideration at all).

Once this process starts, it simply cascades into a violent quick interchange of views. And it is rarely productive. Often it descends to personal attacks or slights on the other party’s team. Body language can play a significant role where you turn your back on the offending person and face those who support you.

The Trick

I believe the trick to defuse this situation is to acknowledge what the other person has said -but in a positive way. And to focus unerringly on the problem under consideration by restating it clearly and simply again. This can be hugely painful for you but it does start defusing the argument very quickly as the other person would be surprised and perhaps, even pleased that you are taking their point into account.

I have  found on occasion that the process of restating the problem takes most of the heat out of  the argument as all parties often didn’t quite understand what it was. And were too keen to get at each other throats. We also didn’t have a moment to consider the other person’s position.

Occasionally, I have found someone has a malicious intent and are being deliberately argumentative. This is however rare. Your sincerity and enthusiasm for transparency and an open solution can often win this person over. Esp. if they are surrounded by others who want to do the right thing.


EIT Stock Image

Suggestions Suggestions on Quickly Resolving the Argument….

Emphasise that you want to hear the other perspectives to an argument, you value everyone’s input and you want to focus on the issues in arriving at the best outcome.

Emphasise this again and again to re-assure everyone else. Always repeat what the other parties have said to confirm your understanding of what this position is.

Dig deep down into yourself and ensure that you also agree with the requirement to come up with the best outcome – meaning that your particular argument actually may not be the best and you may have to accommodate someone else’s suggestion. This realization is ofen very painful. But there is no point in winning an argument and then to come up with a poor solution. Everyone loses in this situation.

Also try and use lateral thinking to come up with innovative approaches that may resolve the argument and be acceptable to everyone - but more importantly – represent the optimum solution to the problem.


Good language to use

Some phrases you may use in defusing an acrimonious exchange:

‘This is a vital issue and I welcome all points of view.

We are looking for the best solution.

We need to focus on the issues…

That was a brave/innovative/gutsy/clever suggestion.

We need to all think differently in coming up with solutions – that is how we arrive at the best solution.’

And  then….

‘I respect the other points of view but I am not enthusiastic about this approach because this is my thinking on the issue…..I welcome your perspective on what I have said as we focus on the best solution.’


The Best Will Out

If you focus on the best outcomes and keep transparent and open in your discussions, you can surely avoid an acrimonious exchange and build partnerships and bridges with your peers.

 Watch out though that you don’t all start thinking the same way with no differences and end up with ‘Group Think’ (everyone mindlessly agreeing and taking a hazardous decision as a result) situations…which is perhaps even worse than having an acrimonious argument as it could result in dangerous outcomes.

Thanks to Liane Davey who wrote an interesting article in HBR entitled: When an Argument Gets Too Heated, Here’s What to Say. I have adapted it to engineering professionals.

An ancient poet, Rumi wrote: ‘Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.


Yours in engineering learning



Mackay’s Musings – 11th July’17  #660
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