Monday, January 5, 2009

Types of Critical Discussions

Last week marked the beginning of a new series of newsletters dealing with improving communication skills. The main ‘take-aways’ were:

  • We are not naturally skilled and having critical conversations, so we need some training.
  • There are always two things being exchanged during a critical conversation – Content and Attitude.

In the coming weeks, we will talk about improving our skills at exchanging content and being able to read and shape attitudes. I usually try to accomplish these kinds of lessons by using models and examples. For this series, I will use everything I can think of to clearly explain the mechanics of conducting real-life critical discussions. If anything is unclear, post a comment or email me at and I will do all that I can to clarify.

This week, let’s talk about the categories of critical discussions we typically have at work. Not every discussion is a critical discussion. Recall that a critical discussion is defined as one in which we are being critical of something. I don’t aim to improve your capability in anything other than critical discussions. I say these discussions fall into 3 categories:
  • Advocacy discussions, in which (at least) two individuals are trying to convince one another as to the superiority of their own position in a given matter, without much regard as to the merit of the other position.
  • “Soft” Collaborative discussions, in which (at least) two individuals that are generally not adversarial are trying to come to an understanding about a given matter.
  • “Hard” Collaborative discussions, in which (at least) two individuals that become adversarial are trying to come to an understanding about a given matter.

Advocacy discussions are contests. The individual is a spokesperson representing a given position. The purpose of the contest is to “win” by achieving acceptance of their advocated position. Period. These are the most common types of discussions we have in business and, while they do have a place, they are poorly suited to 1) developing a common understanding of a position or, 2) promoting group problem solving.
Their weaknesses are many. It is beneficial for a contestant, for instance, to withhold weaknesses in a particular position in order to increase the likelihood of its acceptance. So while there may be known deficiencies in an approach, those deficiencies will not be disclosed UNLESS raised by participants other than the presenter. Likewise, strengths of the idea may be overstated; opposing or tangential opinions may not be considered for “blending” with the original idea in order to preserve the value of the “win” associated with its adoption.

The basic flaw in an advocacy discussion is that it is by nature unbalanced. The presenter brings a fully formed position and views other positions as competitors to be beaten. So any means to preserve imbalance (in their favor) is justified.

Collaborative discussions seek balance. They are not competitive in nature, but cooperative. Many ideas are brought together by contributors and they are compared and reconstituted into a common understanding and perhaps a solution to a problem. There is no loser in this type of discussion. There is a shared solution.

You can get the right answer in either type of discussion, but the long term cost of Advocacy discussions are pretty high if one is trying to use them for things for which they are not suited. They tend to marginalize some participants, and promote and ‘Us versus Them’ mentality. In some cases, I have used them to great effect. Example – a company that was going out of business had used equipment for sale on an “as-is” basis that I wanted to buy. I was not making friends, nor did I see any chance for a long term relationship. I was, in fact, competing with them for my money. I took an Advocates approach to the negotiation. Without being unethical, I went after (and got) the very best value that I could.

They are also possibly useful in situations in which there are a small number of options that are well-defined. In other words, there are few other options. I would support advocacy from a medical provider dealing with a routine issue. No second opinion needed.

Most discussions in business, however, are not so isolated. There are relationships to preserve, credibility and reputation to protect, and important considerations that are different than (and sometimes opposed to) our own that should be considered. These are best reached using collaborative methods. We learned how to manage the exchange of content in the last series of articles. Content is seldom where the difficulty lies, however. The exchange of attitudes is where most of the skill is applied.

In some settings we have a group that gets along well, understands each other, has respect for each other and has respect for the importance and difficulty of the process of collaboration. They may or may not have been trained in collaborative skills, but can work together to come to an understanding. These are the situations that I call “Soft” Collaborative Discussions. If we follow the model for exchanging content in a critical discussion (covered in this blog starting 9/26/08), the temperament of the group will allow for easy management of the exchange of attitudes regarding the content and the process of collaboration.

In other settings, the management of the exchange of attitude is the most challenging. It is what makes collaboration difficult. These Hard Collaborations are difficult because they demand groups of people that may not like or respect each other to work together on ideas upon which they might completely disagree.

In summary, we have:

  • Advocacy discussions, which are by far the most commonly used, and simultaneously are the least useful in achieving the ends of most business discussions and are somewhat destructive to a business.
  • Soft Collaborative Discussions, which are the most useful, least destructive and least common.
  • Hard Collaborative Discussions, which are most useful in that they are collaborative, but potentially are the most destructive due to the difficulty of managing the exchange of attitudes. These are the discussions most of us avoid at all costs.

What we are going to learn in this series is how to turn Advocacy discussions and Hard collaborative discussions into Soft collaborative discussions by introducing Collaboration into the Advocacy format and by managing the exchange of attitudes. Oh, and we will learn to do it unilaterally – that is, without the support of others. This is no simple matter and will require your attention, but starting next week, we will begin reshaping your ideas on how to interact with your peers and superiors at work.

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1 comment:

Rodney said...


I met you and signed up for your newsletter at the last INCOSE get together in San Diego. I haven't read each week, and sometimes I struggle with the complexity of the content, but intrinsically know that this is high value stuff.

I am working within the whitespace of relationships in the military-civil service-contractor client domain, in the areas of process improvement and capabilities clarification. It's a cross between Defense Acquistion compliance, systems engineering and business process improvement. I find that one of the greatest joys in my work is that which draws from sources such as you are producing.

Thank you,

Rod Buckham