image by Paul Harrop

Are you Getting Stuck Debating?

The best way to get nowhere fast is to get stuck in debate mode. Whether it’s a committee, a project team, a leadership team or board, getting stuck debate mode is a common issue.

Hours of debate can seem like a mandatory step in any piece of collaborative work, particularly when it comes to making decisions. Unfortunately, if you ask people what they hate most about working in teams, endless discussion is top of the list.

So if we all hate it why do we keep doing it? Is there a way to get unstuck and avoid future problems?

Here are some ideas for experiments in getting unstuck you might like to try.

Holding “truth” Gently

We don’t know much & some of what we think we know turns out to be wrong.

Data that can be verified is always useful and should never be ignored, but the insights or opinions generated from that data can be less useful. Worse still, when such insights are held as sacred “truths” they can undermine decision making and trip up team work.

The biggest truth is that as a species we know very little about how life works and what it is all about. What we have discovered via contemplation and research sometimes turns out to be wrong. So if you or someone in your team is going red in the face demanding that everyone get behind the “truth” just bear in mind that truth might be about to change. So it makes sense not to too attached to the “truth.”

Cultivating this approach is not easy but it can save you from “debate rage” and broken blood vessels. What’s more it can support moving the team on to more productive and pragmatic ground. You may as a team decide to adopt the truth in question but not because of its rightness but because it provides a path to action. Action which can bring with it more data about the effectiveness of your decision and so move you closer to your goals.

Recognise a Need

It’s easy to get stuck in debate mode when being heard is more important than making progress.

Being overly attached to a particular “truth” is about something other than the “truth” itself. Often when people are “stuck” in convincing others of the rightness of their idea and wrongness of someone else’s, it’s not about the idea at all. It’s what psychologists would call identity management. While work is not a place for therapy there are some practices that support good team work and help avoid getting stuck in debate.

Here are a few suggestions of ways to help team members with the need to share who they are:

  1. Make time in team meetings for people to share positive stories about what they have done, be it at work or home.
  2. When you provide feedback be explicit about how their action has been helpful to you. For example, if one of your team does something brilliant, a simple “thank you, that was great.” is good but if you go on to say exactly what skill you see them demonstrating and how it has impacted you, the effect will be even better.

Put “debate” into a container

Set a time limit on the “debating” section of the meeting and everyone will thank you.

A simple way to avoid getting stuck in debate is to put a time limit on the debate section of the decision making step. Although, this has some benefits and draw backs, so to work effectively it needs to be combined with other techniques.

Not having enough time to express all the relevant ideas can be frustrating but also diminish the quality of the collaboration and the decision being made. Using the time limit as a “check point” can reduce the downside while keeping the benefits. The time “check point” provides a way to check for understanding and a way forward. If one or other is lacking the time can be extended to a new check point.

In addition, using a consent based decision making practices can also be helpful here. It removes the need for everyone to agree with everything that is being said and instead focuses on people consenting to a course of action.

Consent Based Decision Making

No consensus required, just agreement to commit to the next step.

Decision making in many organisations is focused on coming up with the ultimate solution. The answer that will be definitive and lasting. (See suggestion 1). This mindset, as well as the common decision making strategies and organisational structures that go along with it, encourage teams to spend a huge amount of time fiercely “debating” solutions. Conceding the argument means losing face and possibly budget.

Consent based decision making, which is an approach used in some self-organised businesses, changes the dynamic between decisions and actions. In consent based decision making each person agrees to commit to taking the idea forward without having to agree with the suggestion. Moving forward with a suggestion does not mean that everyone is stuck with it. This means that the tension and angst to get the perfect solution is reduced. The team makes the best decision they can then moves on to action and test the decision.

This style of decision making is great for collaborative work and avoiding getting “stuck.” It often goes hand in hand with prototyping and piloting techniques, which mean the decision makers quickly get feedback about the quality of their decision and can change course accordingly.

Letting Go

Your idea is yours but not you. Rejecting your idea is not rejecting you.

Using techniques to separate yourself from your idea is a helpful way to “let go” of the feelings and habits that can keep us stuck in debate mode. Mindfulness practices are particularly good long term techniques that support “letting go.” Similarly, in a group setting contributing ideas anonymously can be useful.

Do you have other ways of avoiding being stuck in debate?

More resources

Consent Based Decision Making