Managing Topics And Focus When Managing Debate
One of the most common ways discourse gets derailed is when we switch topics mid-conversation.
Sometimes this happens because we simply veer into adjacent topics.
But often this happens when someone senses that they are starting to “lose” the encounter, so they switch to an adjacent topic they feel more confident about discussing.
There are five different ways topic-switching occurs. Once you can spot them, you can stop them:
The Reach: This type of dodge is when you quickly say whatever you need to in order to reach a talking point of your own. This is the classic politician or TV pundit move. E.g.:
CEO: “Why don’t we know how long our sales cycles are?”
VP: “The interesting thing about our sales cycles is how much people are talking about ‘digital transformation.’ We really need the marketing team to step up our collateral on digital transformation.”
(Notice how they smoothly transitioned to another topic, while making it sound like they were addressing “sales cycles.”)
The Joke: This type of dodge is where you score a laugh instead of addressing the issue at hand. E.g.:
CEO: “We really need to figure out our sales cycles.”
VP: “I know, it’s like SNAILs cycles, am I right?”
The Attack: This type of dodge is where you turn things around on the other person rather than addressing the issue at hand. E.g.:
CEO: “As the VP of Sales, you should be able to figure out what our sales cycles are.”
VP: “Our sales wouldn’t be so bad if you hadn’t fired the whole team.”
The Storm: This type of dodge is where you overwhelm the other person by talking fast and a lot—about whatever, until everything gets too jumbled up and confused, or until time runs out. E.g.:
CEO: “What’s the deal with the sales cycle data?”
VP: “The sales cycles, ooh boy. Let me tell you, sales are up, clients are all over the place in what they’re asking us to do and the team is totally bogged down because DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION is the future! Analytics! Back end data structures. AR, VR, IR, HR McMaster—it’s all on the table with the way the digital transformation trend is hockeysticking.
CEO: “Well time’s up for this meeting. Guess we’ll get to all this later.”
Debate “defocus” can be prevented by clarifying up front (and re-clarifying throughout) what singular topic the debate is about.
It is okay, when someone veers into another topic, to say, “That’s a different topic than the one we’re debating right now. Let’s put a pin in that and specifically address that once we’ve addressed this one.”
Often people will protest that what you’ve just “put a pin in” is relevant to the current debate.
When this happens, usually the relevance relies on a “false analogy,” which is a fallacy, or a historical precedent, which is often a fallacy as well.
You can either address this by pointing out the fallacy, or by arguing that the conclusions of the debate you are having ought to be able to stand on their own.
Let’s walk through a couple of scenarios:
Pay attention to the subtle topic-switching in the following scenarios, and think about times when this has happened in your own recent conversations:
You’re speaking with your boss on whether to give a promotion to a team member you supervise. The conversation goes like this:
You: “I’d like to promote Alice to Director.”
You: “She has met all the qualifications to become a Director and is ready to lead.”
Boss: “But it took your team member Joe 2 years to become a Director, and Alice has only been here for 6 months.”
You, identifying that the topic of debate could get derailed right here if you aren’t careful: “Why it took Joe 2 years to become a Director is a different topic. I’d be glad to discuss that separately from this. The issue is whether Alice is qualified for the role.”
Boss: “That’s very astute of you. It makes me think I’d like to promote you to President of the company!”
You: “Let’s definitely discuss that separately, too! Meanwhile, can I give Alice that promotion?”
You’re speaking with your boss about a decision you don’t agree with that was made while you were on vacation:
You: “Why are we now charging a cash-out fee to our users if it doesn’t actually cost us anything for them to cash out?”
Boss: “Because we need to get profitable.”
You: “Okay. That doesn’t answer the question, though. The question is why are we calling it a cash-out fee?”
Boss: “Because if we don’t do this, we won’t get profitable.”
You: “So the goal of this is to find a way to get profitable.”
You: “And you’re saying this is the only way to do it?”
You: “My theory is there could be other ways to make that money and get profitable. But that is a separate debate we can have. The debate right now is why are we pretending it costs us something to let our users cash out?”
Boss: “Because we need to get profitable.”
As you can see in this example, sometimes people you debate with will have a hard time realizing that their topic switching doesn’t make sense. When this person has more power than you, such as with the boss in this example, it can be hard to get anywhere. But in the long run it pays off to be patient and persistent when it comes to good debate behavior.
This also illustrates why it’s so important for leaders to exercise Intellectual Humility, the topic we’ll be digging into in Module III of this course!