“Making Your Case” is an Overhyped Skill

I did some impromptu soul-searching recently when Drew McLellan posted this prompt on social media:

“I got a note…from a 17-year-old entrepreneur from Scotland, asking me what I wish 17-year-old entrepreneur me had known.

“I am certainly going to offer him my advice, but I’d like to share yours as well.

“What would you want a 17-year-old entrepreneur to know that you you wish you’d have know back then?”

This prompt hit me at the right moment and made me reflect on something I was always very good at when I was young: The ability to make my case and win the argument.

So I responded to Drew’s question like this:

“When you have a quick and ready response to every bit of advice and criticism, BEWARE! It doesn’t mean you’re brilliant at business, it means you’re brilliant at arguing your point, and that skill rarely comes in handy, Alan. Um, I mean 17yo entrepreneur.”

This isn’t fun to think about, but when I was younger, I enjoyed winning arguments so much that I spent all my mental energy in the discussion on my tactics. I rarely listened to understand; I listened to learn the tactics of others in the conversation, so I could plan my rebuttal. There’s nothing wrong with getting energized by the debate and exercising my logical thought muscles. But I went too far and didn’t do enough to learn more about others.

Besides the predictable late-night college discussions about the issues of the day, I’d apply my skills to discussions with my roommate, Dave, about how we should rearrange the furniture in our dorm room or what kind of pizza to get. I was smug about my ability to outwit him. One day in a fit of frustration, he shouted, “You’re such a… politician!” and stormed out of the room. I beamed with pride. I’d bested him in the conversation about keeping our beds where they were instead of rearranging.

He moved out of the room.

I won the battle but lost the war, as they say.

In my first couple years of teaching band, I came under some criticism from parents and community members for some mis-steps in the program. I approached the situation head-on. First, I enlisted a teacher from a neighboring school district to serve as an advocate and witness to my teaching style. Then, I prepared a list of all the objections and had a rebuttal and witness for all of them. 

One I remember painfully and clearly:

The band was really behind in the parades. There was often a block between the previous float and our marching band. I acknowledged this as the reality, but then I launchd into an educational session about the standardized step size of 8 steps to every 5 yards. In order to be consistent as an ensemble, we needed to stick to that formula religiously. If others in the parade had more respect, they would also travel at the same pace of 8 steps to 5 yards, assuming the march tempo was 120 beats, or steps, per minute. This means the Girl Scouts and pickup trucks needed to ensure that they, also, were moving at 22.5 inches per beat, or 45 inches per second. Any questions?

On the way out of the public meeting, in which I crushed all opposing views, I asked my colleague Steve what he thought. He gave me a wry smile. “I think you’d be a great politician.”

In my second job, I continued my streak of winning my arguments skillfully.

In fact, I got even better at it. But I met my match in my new boss, Fred, who had known me a while and was a smooth talker himself. He called me in to his office on one occasion after I had defused a parent who was upset about something.

He said, “Alan, you do a great job of talking yourself out of the scrapes you get yourself into.”

“Thank you!” I found that to be a high compliment and totally missed his tone.

“Alan.” Fred got a little frustrated but remained kind. “That’s not a compliment. What you need to do next is to stop getting yourself into trouble.”

More than anyone else to this point, Fred helped me see how much time I wasted by trying to win arguments instead of doing the right thing up front.

I didn’t realize at the time, but Fred did a great job with “relationship power.” He got to know me, saw what I was about, and figured out a way to reach me on my own terms in order to make an impact.

I still fall into the trap of trying to win an argument, but thanks to all those past players in my life, I recognize it now. Usually. Even though these stories all took place in the 1990’s, they have left a mark. I’m thankful we can learn from our failures, and I hope these stories can be helpful to you.

In a disagreement situation, do you make the conflict productive and honor the relationships by working together to find the truth or best solution? Or do you see the tendencies to “win”? Remember to slow down, stay present, listen to understand, and ask questions. We all can grow, but we need each other to be successful.

3 Responses

  1. Sally Wilke
    | Reply

    Another this is your best one ever, Alan. Very thought-provoking. I never was quite as skilled as you are at this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try. There’s a goal for today I’ll relax and not be right about a darn thing. I know that wasn’t your point but it’s what I learned in addition to your point.

  2. Drew McLellan
    | Reply

    Great insights — thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Alan Feirer
      | Reply

      Well, thank YOU for planting the seed, Drew! And you’re welcome.

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