“Well, Excu-u-use Me!”

That catchphrase, popularized in the 1970s by Steve Martin, was part of some of the funniest comedy routines of the time.

Unfortunately, that phrase now captures the touchiness of current-day culture. It seems that no comment is immune from attack, no opinion is safe from an onslaught of ridicule.

Consider the contrived outrage at the television ad for Peloton, maker of exercise equipment. The ad featured a husband who dared to give his already slim wife a Peloton stationary bike for Christmas. The commercial was immediately slammed as sexist, tone deaf, and body-shaming. The backlash against the ad was so harsh and relentless that the company reportedly lost nearly a billion dollars in market value.

In today’s hysteria-prone world, there seems to be an endless search for conflict. As one sensible commentator wrote, “In this age of overwrought indignation and attention-seeking fits of rage, too many brands and businesses immediately apologize and run for cover. Ironically, this rarely earns them forgiveness for whatever alleged offenses they have committed and only invites more finger-wagging and exaggerated claims of wrongdoing.”

And of course political discourse is another sad example of the growing contempt epidemic.

Are you frustrated by the state of argument in our world? Then you need to get acquainted with Buster Benson. He’s an entrepreneur and a former product leader at Amazon, Twitter, Slack, and Patreon. Today he’s CEO of 750Words.com which brings private journaling to a safe place on the web.

Buster is also author of Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement.

Yes, I know. “Productive disagreement” sounds like an oxymoron. But it’s not.

Do yourself a favor and consider what Buster has to say about conflict management. 

Rodger Dean Duncan: In recent years, public discourse—especially in politics and on social media—has devolved into new lows of incivility. What effect has this had on everyday, face-to-face relationships?

Buster Benson

Buster Benson: My previous hypothesis was that the most practical advice I could offer would be on how to turn unproductive disagreements into productive ones. It didn’t take long to realize that there’s a much bigger problem we’re currently facing—most of us have lost hope that disagreements are even worth pursuing, so we avoid addressing people face-to-face altogether.

We’ve become conflict-avoidant in some very obvious ways, and other more sneaky ways. When I began cataloging disagreements people were having online, at work, and in personal lives, most of the time the person they disagreed with wasn’t even in the conversation. I call this “sneaky conflict avoidance” because it seems like we’re arguing about something, but it’s more like a monologue where we rant to the choir of people who share our opinion. This form of sneaky conflict avoidance is everywhere. It’s caused by the fact that so many of our public squares and venues for conversations have become extremely polarized. Increasingly, we’re talking only in places filled with people we agree with, and ranting about people who aren’t there with us.

Duncan: Some people seem to regard disagreement as an inherently undesirable or dangerous thing. What’s the problem with that viewpoint?

Benson: Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness, found that when people were asked “Are there issues at work that people are afraid to raise?” 85% of people will say yes. That means that 85% of us know about problems that likely affect the business and are sitting on them because it feels dangerous to do otherwise. This makes sense in a way because oftentimes these problems aren’t part of our primary job description.

Not-my-problem-ism is a real disease. It can feel like we’re doing the right thing by assuming that the people responsible for the problem both know about it and are incentivized to figure it out. Nobody’s going to fire you for ignoring a problem that wasn’t yours. And yet, the end result of this willful blindness, or collective avoidance, is unquestionably more unpleasant in the long term for the business and our own happiness. Every relationship, project, company, or other kind of group we belong to has problems, and each of these things will suffer (and grow worse!) if they are swept under the rug.

The other alternative, I believe, is to practice seeing disagreements as training opportunities rather than obstacles to avoid. Think of the expert athlete who sees discomfort in training as the only way to work through it and get to the next level of fitness. Think of a skill that you’ve learned to master over time, and how taking on new challenges is part of what keeps you invested in that skill. It’s even what makes the craft enjoyable! The art of productive disagreement is a skill that can be sharpened in this same way.

Duncan: What role does disagreement play in effective collaboration?

Benson: Let’s say a couple disagrees about where to go for vacation. Instead of avoiding the conversation and canceling the vacation, a productive disagreement could lead to collaboration on a plan that was better than both of their ideas going in.

Take a product team at a startup where the sales team disagrees with the engineering team about what’s most important to prioritize this quarter. Instead of merely escalating to the CEO or other decision-maker for a tie-breaker, or making empty promises, a productive disagreement could lead to ideas that satisfy the needs of both the sales and engineering teams. Added bonus, this will most likely also lead to both of them better understanding why the other cares about what they do.

Duncan: I can certainly see how this approach could be useful in the public arena.

Benson: Absolutely. Imagine, in an alternate universe, a political system where policy debates involved each side trying to first understand the other side’s “best argument” because they knew that if that best argument was persuasive, they’d gladly adopt that policy over the one they came in with. Instead of having policies that were packed with concessions to squeak by with enough votes, or policies that were designed to undo as much of the other side’s progress, we’d have a system where the parties sharpened each other and produced policies that were better than either side could have come up with on their own.

All of these cases require that we see disagreement as a tool for benefiting from our differences, rather than as a battleground to try to wipe the other side out, or avoid altogether.

Next: Great Ideas On How to Argue Better. No Kidding

Rodger Dean Duncan
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