The Art of Disagreeing Successfully

We at Mobus Creative Negotiating teach you how to face up to an inevitable part of negotiating that many of us find to be unpleasant – even intimidating.  Most of us dislike disagreeing with others, which is part of what we must do as negotiators, no matter how politely and cheerfully we do it.

We draw upon good advice from experts in many fields.  That includes what Bo Seo, a two-time world champion debater and a former coach of the Australian national debating team and the Harvard College Debating Union, teaches about how to disagree with others. Summarizing his book Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard, he told Lucy Clark of The Guardian, ‘There’s no substitute for listening’: what being a champion debater taught Bo Seo about arguing over the dishes, research shows “First, that some of our hardest, most persistent disagreements are with those with whom we’re closest. And second, that they’re waged over trivial matters.”  His advice? “Focus on the disagreements that are most likely to lead to a kind of a productive conversation between us.”

As Pamela Paul put it in The New York Times, How to Argue Well, “Arguments, Seo reminds us, are ‘easy to start and hard to end.’ For a dispute to go well, it should be real, important and specific….Pause to consider how important that point is and whether it’s worth arguing over. Stick to the specific dispute at hand so that the argument doesn’t expand or spiral.”  One way to do that: “Rather than annihilate a classmate in a large lecture hall, invite him to coffee. Take a conversation offline, which removes the incentives to escalate.”

Seo is a big believer in using the technique we at Mobus Creative Negotiating call “the devil’s advocate” (an old term from the Catholic Church: the devil’s advocate argued why someone should NOT be named a saint).  In other words, think about what the other side is going to say.  As he puts it, “take out a fresh sheet of paper, place oneself on the opposite side of the topic and brainstorm the four best arguments for this new position. Review one’s own case through the eyes of an opponent, brainstorming the strongest possible objections.”

Finally, as a negotiator, bear in mind Seo’s warning to Clark that you will not always come out on top: “One of the things that you learn as a debater; it is knowing that you’re going to lose … a lot. And knowing that the wins are temporary because there’s always going to be another conversation. And importantly, knowing that you can be right, but unpersuasive on the day in the particular conversation, and lose.”