This weekend, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about arguments. We both dislike them. Instead of getting fired up to state our positions well, we both start wishing we were somewhere else.
When people disagree about something in a conversation, any statement will exhibit either inquiry or advocacy. Inquiry involves asking questions to find out more about the other person’s point of view. Advocacy involves making statements to defend or advocate for one’s own point of view.
Obviously both are needed as the conversation unfolds so that one person is inquiring and learning while the other is advocating and teaching. Things go awry in a number of ways. Sometimes there is an unevenness in terms of give and take — one person never stops advocating so the other is doing all the learning — and feeling frustrated because he/she speaks because the other person doesn’t seem to listen. Sometimes both sides are tied up in too much advocacy — each side mentally rehearsing his/her next argument while the other advocates.
Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy (2004) report on research based on observing and coding the speech acts of 60 work teams in the middle of annual planning. They calculated the ratio between 3 bipolar opposites as they occurred during the meetings: inquiry versus advocacy, positive versus negative, and other versus self.
Then they sorted the teams according to business performance.
They observed the following ratios for inquiry versus advocacy:
- High-performing teams (N=15): 1.143 inquiry to advocacy
- Medium-performing teams (N=26): .667 – These teams generally started out with a more even ratio which dropped when they faced major difficulties.
- Low-performing teams (N=19): .052. That works out to 20 advocacy statements for every inquiry statement.
My friend and I talked about inquiry and advocacy, and what we’ve observed in the arguments that we like and dislike. My friend summarized it thus, “I prefer mutual enrichment to victory.” But we both agreed that not everybody feels or behaves that way. When arguing with someone who prefers victory, we both just want to escape. I feel somewhat vindicated by the Losada and Heaphy’s data.
On occasion, I’ve been the mediator between groups with conflicting goals. When we’ve been successful finding an acceptable middle ground, it always follows some form of positive emotion and an agreement on both sides to allow themselves to be changed by what they hear.
Here’s a wonderful statement from the section in the Losada & Heaphy paper (2004) called Qualitative Observations:
Qualitative observations of the teams showed that high performance teams were characterized by an atmosphere of buoyancy that lasted during the whole meeting. By showing appreciation and encouragement to other members of the team, they created emotional spaces that were expansive and opened possibilities for action and creativity as shown in their strategic mission statements. In stark contrast, low performance teams operated in very restrictive emotional spaces created by lack of mutual support and enthusiasm, often in an atmosphere charged with distrust and cynicism. The medium performance teams generated emotional spaces that were not as restrictive as the low performance teams, but definitively not as expansive as the high performance teams. They did not show the distrust and cynicism of low performance teams, but they also did
not manifest the mutual support and enthusiasm characteristic of high performance teams.”
Losada, M. & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47, 740-765.