We Can Build Trust and Community Through Better Arguments

November 21, 2022

The Better Arguments Project is a national civic initiative created to help bridge divides not by papering over them but by helping people have better arguments. Arguments don’t have to drive us apart—better arguments can bring us together. This project is just one of the ways the Aspen Institute brings people together in dialogue and develops the leadership of those working to strengthen trust.

Courtney Wright participated in the Better Arguments Ambassador Program, an immersive, fellowship-style program designed to equip participants to bring the project to their communities. Courtney Wright is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Management and Corporate Communication and Director of the Business Communication Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. She spoke to the program about her work. 

Why is it important that we find healthier, more constructive ways to disagree and exchange ideas?

That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow as individuals, especially in the realm of education, whether it’s K-12 or higher education. We need to explore new ideas and push the bounds of our knowledge, often to areas where we’re a bit uncomfortable. The point of the university is to pursue knowledge and truth, and you cannot do that without testing out ideas and disagreeing with one another. But lately, it feels like more and more students are scared to criticize whatever they perceive to be the popular viewpoint. To make the prospect of speaking up or disagreeing less scary or fraught for people, we must become smarter about how we engage with these conversations.

Why did you want to participate in the Better Arguments Ambassador Program and bring what you learned back to your community? And how have you used what you learned?

My interest in better arguments and civil discourse really started to grow when I was teaching an MBA course on Leading Diverse and Inclusive Organizations. Each week was a different, complex topic related to diversity and inclusion in businesses, and how leaders can navigate that. Students were given topics ranging from affirmative action to affinity groups and were tasked with designing and leading conversations around these issues.

My students got a lot out of the class and the exercises, but I realized that they were not always equipped to have these hard conversations. They knew their classmates casually, but there were not necessarily strong relationships or trust present. Students were frustrated not knowing how to navigate these tough conversations. They expressed that frustration to me. Notably, it came from all sides of the political spectrum. I routinely heard, “I can’t believe that person was allowed to express their views,” or “The conversation was not fair,” or “I’m scared to express my views.”

We can’t have real solutions without real conversations. We need to explore every perspective to make informed decisions. And if we are going to have honest conversations about complicated topics, we must teach people how to have these conversations and not emotionally shut down.

Participating in the Better Arguments Ambassador Program has helped me think of ways to create better environments for argumentation in my courses. I’ve tried to do little lessons and coaching on how to have these conversations, and I’ve worked on various ways to establish ground rules and expectations to prepare people to disagree. But there aren’t easy fixes. I’ve realized that being able to argue constructively is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced routinely. You must be intentional about creating an environment and culture where people can engage in arguments productively.

As a professor of business working with MBA students, you think intensively about two different sectors: higher education and business. How are these spaces dealing with our current polarized discourse, and to what extent are the opportunities and challenges faced in each sector alike or different?

Higher education is trying very hard to address polarization. There are many initiatives, either inside or outside the academy, working to teach college students to be civic-minded and to recognize that it’s their responsibility as citizens to add positively to the public discourse. It’s still a big challenge, but many people are working on solutions, which is encouraging.

But in business, that civic purpose is not the central goal or mission. There are several high-profile news stories about companies that have gotten fed up with politics or social issues dominating the work environment. And they’ve responded by trying to discourage political speech at work, saying that their focus and purpose should be their work.

It probably backfired because it’s not binary. You can’t just put blinders on in the workforce and say, “Nope, we’re only going to focus on work” because the company is part of a larger society. Individuals are not just robots who are doing work. They have other facets and want to feel like they can be authentic in the workplace.

But it’s hard to navigate that and figure out what’s appropriate and what’s not. And so, companies are having a harder time navigating these waters and figuring out: How do we allow our individuals to be authentic? How do we recognize that certain populations or groups are underrepresented or not treated fairly or fully welcomed into this environment? How do we correct that without alienating others by going too far in the other direction?

A better argument allows people not necessarily to change someone else’s mind but to understand why they think the way they do.

Additionally, businesses face the challenge of juggling multiple generations in the workplace. We now have four generations, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z, all represented in the workforce and within a singular organization at times. They carry traditional generational differences in addition to different views on social and political issues. Notably, they may also disagree on how those social and political differences should or should not show up in the workplace. That presents a unique challenge for understanding one another’s viewpoints and having open communication.

With our younger generations, it’s amazing how much they want to engage with solving societal problems. They want to voice, and they’re not content with just sitting quietly and putting in their time until they get to the higher levels. But there are challenges in figuring out how to do that appropriately in a way that still respects the very real power dynamics in any organization with some level of hierarchy. But at the same time, biting our tongues or sweeping our differences under the rug isn’t the path forward either.

How does the goal of better arguments relate to strengthening trust in our institutions and each other?

People don’t trust what they don’t understand. And if you don’t understand why a decision was made or why somebody does something the way they do, you’re not going to trust either the decision or the individual.

At its core, a better argument allows people not necessarily to change someone else’s mind but to understand why they might think the way they do. I don’t think you can do that unless you argue and push back to force the other person to articulate why they view something a certain way or believe something ought to be done. There’s a distrust in our society partly because we don’t understand. In this sense, because argumentation can push us towards greater levels of understanding, it can be preferable to more “conversational” approaches for strengthening trust.

Arguing forces you to think more critically about your viewpoints and ideas and be prepared to defend them. This is how you figure out where your thinking may be lacking or faulty, and that’s how we grow and learn as individuals. By arguing, we can better understand one another as well as ourselves. We might not walk away from the argument with a completely different opinion on the topic, but we can still walk away feeling less threatened by the other side.

Do you have any tips for leaders who want to build trust within their teams?

Ask lots of questions. Show curiosity. But also, don’t be afraid to take a stand. And if you do, be clear about why you’re taking a particular position.

Not everyone will agree, and that’s okay. Getting a diverse group of people to agree on everything is virtually impossible. Where we often fall short is trying to please everyone—we please no one and get nowhere.

You need to get lots of informed opinions and perspectives and try your hardest to listen and understand. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if you initially disagree vehemently. But then, at a certain point, as a leader, particularly in business, your role is to make a decision or take a stand, and to clearly communicate why. As long as people feel like they were heard, that due diligence was given to different perspectives, and that justification for the ultimate decision was transparently explained, they will be okay with the outcome.

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