How To Discuss A Difference Of Opinion With Another Professional

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Tuesday, 7.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. – Ruth Benedict

At a meeting a few years ago a speaker described how a particular software development method, Agile, did not work. It was meaningless, a collection of rituals and there was no evidence that it improved the process of software development. An audience member challenged this statement, saying that the approach the speaker had presented, a customer centered way of delivering high-quality services was in fact the Agile way – others must simply be doing it wrong. This little vignette is played out daily in different fields and with different professionals as they try to figure out who is right or wrong, which is better or worse. Why does this happen and is there anything we can do to improve the situation?

The place to start is by redefining what we think of as “knowledge”. There’s only a small portion of knowledge that’s objectively true for everyone – and it’s limited to the natural sciences. Physics works the same way for you and me. The further you get from physics the less certainty you have about whatever you’re looking at. At the other extreme is religion – a belief in something that has no existence that we can confirm. People who believe in a religion instead have a set of ideas they hold, usually written down in a book. “Knowledge”, to them, is what’s in the book.

As we head from religion to the day-to-day work that we do we see the pattern of belief playing out again. A group of professionals or practitioners will point to a collection of books, a canon, that contain the set of ideas they consider as authoritative [1]. You have to know what’s in these books to be knowledgeable in that field. And the professionalisation of a field is done by centering its practice on a set of books – a “distinct knowledge base” [2].

This means you cannot have a discussion with someone else unless you acknowledge that what they think of as true is what’s in their books. You can’t come up with a new book and say, “Look here, this tells you why you’re wrong.” They’ll just point to their book and say, “No I’m not, and this is why.”

A wholesale shift from one point of view to another, then, is like asking someone of one religion to change to another. It’s not an easy thing to do. Evangelism is a full-time job for some.

Since we’re not talking about religion, however, but about professional practice there is a little more hope that better methods will carry the day. If you can show something is better then people will often listen.

In fact people are asking for “applications papers” [3]. What they want is information about ways that work, ways that are based on careful observation and underpinned by good-quality models and rigorous thinking.

But if you come up with a way that works how do you approach a group that thinks in a certain way? How do you make your case?

This is where you need to watch Larry McEnerney from the University of Chicago who talks about the way in which you enter a group and make your case. You have to first know the field, read their books and understand the way they see knowledge. Then you can say something like, “There’s a lot of good stuff here and I’m really impressed with the work. But have you thought about this one point here?” When you write in that way then people will listen, because you flatter them and then suggest something that they should consider. That’s the simple secret of getting new ideas into an existing group.

But of course you need to decide whether it’s worth the effort. Not all groups are worth entering. You can waste a lot of time learning stuff that is just wrong. But if you’re a professional you’re probably not in that kind of situation. You probably want to do better work. And that means balancing your approach – knowing your stuff from your books but being open to learning new things from your practice and also from other fields.

The takeaway is this. Before you argue with anyone take the time to read the books that have put their ideas in their heads. If you can’t be bothered to do that then just walk away.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

  1. Bazerman, C. (2012), “The orders of documents, the orders of activity, and the orders of information”, Archival Science.
  2. McLeod, J (1999), “Practitioner Research in Counselling”, Sage publications.
  3. Miser, H.J (1998), “The easy chair: What kinds of papers will contribute to a well-rounded view of the conditions and craft of OR/MS practice?”, Interfaces.

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