That idea of establishing a connection is one of your crucial rules for a productive argument, isn’t it?
Absolutely. There are ten rules in my book, one of which is the golden rule: be real. The danger with a book like mine is that it gets distilled into a list of tips and tricks. In an argument, though, you have to engage honestly – the other person will always find you out if you’re just trying to manipulate them.
The first rule is indeed connection. I’ve spoken to expert interrogators of hardened terrorists, hostage negotiators, divorce mediators and diplomats. All of these people who have to deal with tough, hard disagreements for a living have very similar principles. They say the first big mistake most people make is to get to the tough part of the disagreement too quickly. Before you do that, you need to establish a human connection. If you can build a rapport and establish a relationship on the basis of mutual respect, you can lower the defences of even some really bad people. Really good interrogators don’t walk into a room and start throwing the book at someone. They might ask them how they got to this situation and go from there. Remember the golden rule, though: you need to be genuinely interested in that back story for this to work. Good interrogators are invariably very curious people.
Has what you’ve learnt encouraged you to change your own behaviour?
I will have arguments with my wife in front of my kids much more willingly than I used to. We don’t go off to another room to have it out then try to present a united front to the children. We try to show them it’s okay to have straightforward disagreements and still be close to each other. The kids certainly now know how to have it out with me! But that’s a good thing – I’d much rather that than them bottling up frustrations.
Thinking of organisations, a strong company culture can really help here. I was talking to a founder of a medium-sized start-up the other day. He openly disagrees with his co-founder in front of staff, rather than going off to a corner office as if a disagreement is something to be ashamed of. Staff now understand it’s good to voice an opinion that not everyone will agree with.
What do you hope readers might take away from the book?
I hope it will do for other people what it’s done for me, which is to take a lot of the stress and discomfort out of open disagreement. I’ve come to see it as a positive thing and I’m more confident about doing it, which has been hugely beneficial to me at work, at home and on social media. I can see conflict as essential to maintaining good relationships.
Writing the book has been a bit of an adventure. Like all adventures, there’s an element of risk – confrontations won’t always go perfectly and someone might get upset – but there are immense benefits out there. A good conflict can teach you things about the world and about other people that you might never have learnt otherwise.
Finally, Ian, do you think lockdown will change anything about the way we approach conflict?
Thinking of work, Zoom calls are a very good substitute for in-person meetings, but there’s one thing they’re not very good at: encouraging debate and disagreement. When you're not in the same room, you're a lot less aware of what other people are thinking and feeling. You can’t ‘read the room’ and neither can anyone else, which makes us a bit less confident about saying something potentially controversial and pushes us towards consensus decision making. Consensus can be good, but it can also lead us to not explore all of the options. Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, has said the worst thing about virtual meetings is that you can’t debate ideas. I’m with him on that and I think we need to factor this in as we think about the return to the office. It’s an impact of remote working that won’t show up on a spreadsheet, but over time it could dim the collective intelligence of a company.
Conflicted by Ian Leslie is published by Faber & Faber today. Order it here.