Arguments occur all too often, whether with a debtor who is disputing a debt, or a co-worker, manager, employee, or spouse. Anyone who is in an argument really wants to win. Frequently in an argument the parties get very emotional and winning is more important than the issue itself. More often than not, neither side actually wins the argument, so the only thing that was accomplished was for both people to get even angrier and more convinced in their opinion. Instead of winning, the argument makes it even harder to ultimately solve the issue.
And even if you win, you lose, because the other side leaves with bad feelings. These bad feelings linger. They can continue to disrupt regular interaction long after the argument. In the work environment it can result in lower productivity, damaged morale, and even inadvertent passive-aggressive sabotage. Arguments are one of the most destructive occurrences for building and maintaining good teamwork.
So the key to winning an argument is to avoid it completely. That doesn’t mean you have to give up on the point you are trying to make, but it means that to truly have success, you need to win the point without getting in an argument. Whether you end up in an argument is usually determined by how you initially react to or treat the other person. For most of us, the first natural reaction to anger, criticism, or defensiveness is to become defensive ourselves. That can lead to a response that results in an argument, and while the other side may have started it by making you feel defensive, if you don’t control this emotion you are likely on the path to the negative results that come from being in an argument.
Of course, you also need to control your temper to stay out of an argument. So how should you respond when someone starts a conversation with an argumentative approach? The best trick I was taught a long time ago is to approach the conversation as a chance to learn about other person’s position and situation. In the first moments of feeling defensive and perhaps getting angry, I tell myself to respond by asking a question, and use the answer time to do three things: 1) listen, 2) focus on controlling my emotions, and 3) developing a response that will continue towards disarming the other person’s anger so we can eventually focus on resolution.
Besides being a good listener, I also look for areas where I can agree with the person. Validating their thoughts or feelings makes them feel heard and that support can make them feel less angry, either immediately or eventually. If the person has not calmed down yet, I follow my validating comment with a question. If someone needs to vent, you need to let or encourage that to happen as a precursor to solving the issue. As much as we all just want to get to the resolution we desire, there are no short-cuts.
A common instruction to debt collectors is to control the conversation and not let it get off-topic or turn into a time sinkhole. At first look, encouraging someone to vent seems to be exactly the opposite of controlling the conversation. But if you look at this tactic as one where you are intentionally diffusing anger so you can get to the point of the person volunteering to pay, then you are still in control and moving towards completing your goal.
Even if you do all of this right, there is still one more obstacle, and that is understanding that many disagreements cannot be solved in one sitting. If emotions are high or positions firmly entrenched on one side, that person probably can’t get all the way to agreeing with your position in during one conversation. Again – there are no short-cuts, and pressing too hard for resolution after diffusing anger can completely backfire if the person feels you were not being genuine earlier in the conversation.
Disputes are very common in the large commercial collection matters we handle. Frequently the first comments are in the form of an argument, and if we stay on that path too often the result is a judge having to decide who wins, and that takes time, money and effort. We find we are far more effective for our clients when we avoid the argument and eventually get both parties to focus on solving a problem rather than trying to win an argument.