Sunday, August 31, 2008

Conducting a Critical Discussion

For the last few weeks, I have elaborated on the elements of attitude that provide the best point of view from which to approach a discussion. Studying these elements and learning how to incorporate them authentically into your communication will help you remain collaborative and avoid falling into the advocacy trap. More on this in upcoming weeks. Now it's time to look at some of the elements critical to conducting the discussion.

Let's look at the instance in which you are challenging the status quo. In most businesses, the biggest threat is NOT the outside competition, but the status quo, so understanding this model is important.

Presumption and Burden of Proof

For our purposes, Status Quo means "the way things are". The status quo carries with it the presumption that things are like they are for a reason, and therefore there is no reason to change. Of course this is not always right, or we would never need to discuss it, but the fact is that in critical discussions the status quo carries this presumption. It is up to the person challenging the status quo to prove that things should change. This is called the "Burden of Proof".

So, the person supporting the status quo is said to have "presumption" and the person challenging the status quo bears the "burden of proof". The idea is that the challenger must have a good enough position to convince the other party that things should change. If they can't support such a position - can't dislodge the status quo, then things will stay as they are.

These two elements (presumption and burden of proof) are very important. In the case of a tie, the win goes to presumption. In some discussions, a great deal of effort goes into declaring presumption because, in the case of a close call, presumption wins. Sometimes, a good approach is to gain agreement that the status quo is flawed. If one can do that, our new approach only has to cause less harm and is we can prove that, we can then say that another approach is "worth a try". This works because we have short-circuited the presumption that the status quo is satisfactory, which is sometimes easier than gaining agreement that a new approach is clearly better.

Burden of Proving Assertions

In the course of a discussion, each side is going to make statements that support a position. Those statements are called assertions. After making an assertion, the other party can either accept the assertion as stated or can ask for data that backs up the assertion. This data is called evidence or proof. Asking for evidence needn't be more complicated than asking "What makes you think so?' or "Tell me more about...". The point is that unless you accept the other party's assertions (and sometimes even if you do) it is wise to ask for THEIR reasons for believing the way they do. This is very important in understanding their perspective fully.

Burden of Rejoinder

This is the responsibility to respond to the perspectives expressed by those that are challenging your perspective. If someone asks a question of you, asks for evidence, or in some other way is actively asking about your perspective, then you have a responsibility to reply in a way that addresses the question. And they owe the same to you. Stalling, withdrawing, attacking, sarcasm, and manipulation are typical way is which someone demonstrates failure to meet the burden of rejoinder. Knowing that these responses (and the underlying fallacies) is very helpful in judging the strength of a position.

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