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Navigating conflicts: how to communicate effectively when arguing

You may have heard the quote, "Truth is born of argument," but is it? This article highlights four argumentation levels, offers a real-life example, and contains tips to help you successfully navigate a conflict and benefit from it.

The author of this article is IT Manager Dzmitry Veliasnitski.


The following article is entirely based on one thing that a university lecturer told me one day. I wasn’t a very good student and, unfortunately, I don’t remember her name anymore. I am, however, unbelievably thankful for the piece of information I am about to share with you. I’ve tried to find scientific evidence, or research, to support it, but failed, so please consider this article as simply a meditation on the topic. This is the framework that I use to navigate and analyze any conflict, and I believe it will be useful to many people.

Argumentation levels

Imagine a person that you recently had an unpleasant argument with. Do you remember how you felt? How you were 100% sure that you were right? How you came up with a few arguments during the dispute, and then twice as many good arguments after the interaction was over? These memories are useful to us right now.

I claim that there are 4 main levels of argumentation for any interpersonal conflict, with each subsequent level being “stronger,” than the previous one.

The levels are:

  • rational,
  • emotional,
  • legal, and
  • physical.

4 main levels of argumentation

Let’s take the following unfortunately common situation as an example:

You are a manager at a software company. You are working on a big project and are expected to deliver frontend UI and backend logic to your customer by a certain date. Suddenly, you realize that you are unavoidably running late, and you can’t complete your part of the commitment on time. When you ask your team why, they tell you that they have a critical dependency on the API that your customer is supposed to provide but hasn’t provided yet. (Let’s omit the question of why you realized the failure so late.) When you call your customer to discuss the project, the question will inevitably be raised: who’s going to take responsibility for the failure? Your job is to win the potential argument.


Level 1. Rational argumentation

You may consider this dispute level as one that arises before the argument itself. In this kind of dispute, the parties are exchanging valid points and supporting their own points with examples, research, data, and perhaps even the scientific method. All the things that should happen in an ideal world.

In the hypothetical example with the manager, for instance, you should say — at this stage — anything that supports your point of view:

  • The manner in which you provided reports means that the failure to meet the deadline should not be a surprise.
  • Logically, the customer couldn't expect the job to be finished without the API they were supposed to provide.
  • The developers on the customer's side knew that they had to deliver it.
  • The customer sent you an email in which they specifically mentioned their commitment.

As you can see, at this level, you should be focused exclusively on presenting facts. Rather than intending to win, the goal is to exchange information and find the truth.

Level 2. Emotional argumentation

Emotional argumentation sounds like an oxymoron, but it is still an approach used to prove a point. Here are some examples of what could be considered emotional argumentation:

  • A child having a tantrum in a grocery shop.
  • An employee of a local coffee shop forcing a smile on their face.
  • A person crying out for help in a life-threatening situation.
  • A dog begging for a treat.

As you can see, these arguments can be both 100% valid and completely manipulative. People may use them consciously or unconsciously. Rational arguments generally will not effectively counter emotional argumentation. For example, a screaming child won’t understand that an extra ice cream could be harmful.

Meme 1

In my example with the manager, let's imagine a customer who, upon hearing the news, starts screaming at the manager and even threatens legal action to induce fear and manipulate the manager into a submissive position.

What if the customer escalates the issue to upper management? This doesn't really change anything, since the underlying arguments will remain the same. Escalation is often seen as an emergency tool. Rational escalation occurs when a customer understands that the manager they are dealing with lacks the necessary resources, leverage, competence, or authority to resolve the situation. Emotional escalation, on the other hand, does not involve rational thinking and may instead occur as an attempt by the customer to restore their sense of self-esteem by "punishing" the manager.


Level 3. Legal argumentation

This level is not solely about formal laws and cases decided by the courts. It can include references to:

  • Formal laws of the country;
  • Contracts;
  • Cultural norms/traditions that are widely acknowledged and obeyed;
  • Laws of decency/etiquette;
  • Social agreements; and
  • Other similar guidance.

According to this perspective, arguments rely on agreements that everyone has made beforehand. For instance, a child can cry as much as they want, but legally, a parent is not obligated to buy them extra ice cream. Further, the parent has a legal duty to take care of their child and act in the child’s best interests, even if the child is upset about it.

Meme 2

In the example with the manager, escalation to the legal argumentation level starts when the manager calls attention to specific points in the contract that assign the API dependency and identify dates before which the customer must deploy the working API. This is not necessarily legal action in the technical sense, but this level definitely beats emotional and rational arguments. The former simply don’t work because you can scream as much as you want but, in the end, the judge will be on the correct side of the argument. The rational arguments are also not going to work because they may result in foregoing some points in the contract to achieve results that are more beneficial overall.

Level 4. Physical argumentation

This level exists and can be both the most confusing and the most significant of all. As I understand it, this level encompasses a wide range of options, from physically subduing your opponent to acquiring a rival firm, and from manipulating a person's psyche to imposing economic sanctions.

It is hard to find a good example of this in the IT industry since it is extremely rare for companies to leave the legal framework. So, let’s move on to the next point.

How to communicate effectively when arguing

What should you do about arguments at each level? It really depends on the specific factors of the situation you find yourself in. Ideally, both sides should strive to maintain rationality in a conflict to maximize mutual benefit, if they value the "win-win" mentality. I don't think it would be rational to immediately begin by listing all of the specific points in the contract that the customer did not comply with when you are responding to their concerns about API delivery.

Meme 3

The levels of argumentation serve as a framework to navigate conflict situations and to understand what's happening before the conflict escalates, since it can be challenging to backtrack to lower levels from higher ones. Here are some guidelines derived from my experience with argumentation:

  • Always try to keep the conversation in the rational realm. Doing so provides the most control over the situation and offers the potential for finding win-win solutions.
  • Ensure that you cover all essential aspects from the beginning: be prepared physically, economically, legally, and emotionally while fully understanding the rationale behind your actions. Only escalate if you are ready for the consequences of doing so.
  • Avoid exploiting the vulnerable position of the other side (an emotional partner, an escalating customer, or a child requesting an extra ice cream) unless your sole purpose is to defeat them.
  • If you sense that the person you are interacting with is on the verge of escalating, try to pause the interaction to allow everyone to cool down before proceeding with a rational solution.
  • Practice empathy. It is crucial to understand not only where your partner stands but also the situation of your opponent.

Conclusion

This is a simple and concise framework, but at the same time one of the most powerful tools in my manager’s toolkit. Many of the things may seem obvious, but when you try and see a conflict through this lens, you can truly understand your position, prospects, and potential resolutions. It’s great for making rational decisions, preventing manipulation, planning negotiations, and much more.

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