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The art of arguing - let the sparks fly

April 02, 2019

Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé and Helga Pattart-Drexler of the WU Executive Academy can argue with each other really well - because they have found a way of doing it in an open and appreciative manner. Their example goes to show that, when done properly, arguing is a good thing. Based on very personal experiences, Astrid and Helga have identified four reasons why every company should have an open culture of conflict.

An open culture of communication ranks high on the wish lists of modern businesses. But sometimes old habits die hard. Grapevine communication and jiggery-pokery are still commonplace in many companies, and when it comes to meetings, a spade is often not called a spade for fear of rubbing people the wrong way or of causing an argument. Open conflicts where things can become heated? They may have existed - and may still exist - here and there between power-hungry despots. But as far as everyday communication in corporate settings is concerned, they are widely considered taboo.

Simmering conflicts are productivity killers

According to a study by KPMG, conflicts and arguments take up between 10% and 15% of our working time. The experts group on business mediation of the Austrian Federal Chamber of Commerce (WKO) reckons that conflicts entail costs of approximately 650 euro per employee and year. Apart from that, they are extremely time consuming, reduce productivity and have a negative impact in terms of team spirit.

“The problem in this context is not that there are conflicts but that they are not actively addressed and dealt with,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy. “In meetings, people often keep beating around the bush forever. Many are afraid of conflicts and take them personal when they do happen.” This is a fatal mistake: “The obsession with harmony consumes so much energy that could be better used for work.”

Arguing - let the sparks fly
According to a study by KPMG, conflicts and arguments take up between 10% and 15% of our working time. Helga Pattart-Drexler and Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé have identified four compelling reasons why and when it makes perfect sense to argue.

Should we argue? Yes, definitely - but properly

Helga Pattart-Drexler and her superior, managing director Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé, have embraced an open culture of conflict. “We are both impulsive and pretty direct. So, it does happen that we have really heated, emotional arguments and let the sparks fly,” she laughs. That said, the two have found a way of arguing with each other in an open and appreciative manner.

Together, they have identified four compelling reasons why and when it makes perfect sense to argue and let the sparks fly:

1. The big bang leads to the creation of something new

The first few times they butted heads they felt insecure. “We then talked about how glad we were about being able to be direct with each other. Now, we take conscious advantage of our arguments because it is in the process of arguing that we get new perspectives,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler. Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé, too, is convinced of the merits of an open culture of conflict: “New ideas cannot emerge unless there is an open environment where everybody is allowed to speak his or her mind.”

The right mindset is a sine qua non for constructive arguing: It is important to not take personal what people say and to stand up for the cause and the result.

2. Emotions are set free - and one feels relieved

Most people tend to think that having an argument is synonymous with communicating in a hurtful, belittling manner: “We don't do that. We always remain respectful and treat each other as equal partners, but we show our emotions,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler. “When things become a little heated, our colleagues soon get puzzled. They then try to calm us down,” she continues, adding that during an open conflict a lot of pent-up negative energy is set free - “saying the unsaid gives you a feeling of relief.” But personal emotional relief must not become an end in itself - ranting executives and hysterical employees are hardly ever innovative. “The purpose of any argument must be to help the cause; eventually, there always needs to be some form of consensus, even if the only common ground you find is that you agree to disagree,” explains Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé.

3. People can be who they really are

In an environment where people are expected to behave professionally, it is often considered taboo to say why one is angry, let alone to voice one's anger. In this context, executives are required to be open-minded and provide employees with a protected space for greater openness: “Once Astrid said to me: Something is bugging you; let it out. This helped me give vent to my anger,” recounts Helga Pattart-Drexler. “There can be no openness unless executives create an atmosphere of trust,” says Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé, adding that calling for new openness in a toxic environment of fear without leading by example is doomed to failure from the start. “Being allowed to be yourself in the workplace with all your emotions and not having to pretend something adds enormous value and is much more important than to always keep your composure,” explains Helga Pattart-Drexler, looking at things from an employee perspective.

4. Arguing fosters mutual trust

Degrading arguments can ruin a relationship. But constructive, i.e. open and honest, arguments can foster it, provided you open up and make yourself vulnerable. This, in turn, requires you to realize the following: “At some point, the two of us came to understand that we do not argue because we are angry at one another. We can say to each other: It just sucks that you don't understand me. And yet, the other person does not feel offended,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler. What is crucial in this context is to learn to distinguish between the personal and the factual. “Incidentally, this approach works really well also with children. The fact that somebody has a different opinion does not mean that he or she wants to rile you. The important thing is to always use words that the other person can accept,” explains Helga Pattart-Drexler, adding that adopting this attitude and laughing about an argument together later deepens the interpersonal relationship - and the mutual trust. “I can rely 100% on Astrid, and she can rely 100% on me,” says Helga Pattart-Drexler. Precisely because sometimes the sparks will fly.


Our Executive Education Programs are dedicated to topics such as leadership and change. More information can be found here.

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