Adversarial vs. collaborative communication styles

Continuing on my recent theme of zero-sum vs. non-zero-sum thinking in management, today I want to discuss two different communication styles, which I am calling adversarial and collaborative.

The adversarial style is essentially the Thunderdome approach to communication: “Two ideas enter, one idea leaves.” The default assumption of the adversarialist is that the other person’s ideas are wrong. The other person must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their ideas are right. The adversarialist believes that good ideas are forged through the crucible of conflict, and that weaknesses in an idea must be attacked in order to make the idea stronger. Adversarialists like arguments and battles; in a zero-sum adversarial discussion, if one person wins, the other person loses, so every point of discussion is a skirmish in the larger battle and it is easy to keep track of the results.

The advantage of this style is that it forces every idea to be examined. An adversarial debate sparks research, as one must buttress every point in one’s argument with solid evidence to ensure that there are no weak points that can be attacked by one’s opponent. Courtrooms use the adversarial style (prosecutor vs. defendant) to ensure that every piece of evidence is considered when determining the path of justice. The adversarial style also taps into the motivating power of competition; people want to win, and being in a battle gives them incentive to do whatever it takes to do so.

The adversarial style has many disadvantages, though. For one thing, if a discussion is framed as a battle, it creates opponents of people who perhaps should be on the same side (e.g. departments within a company), making it hard for them to collaborate towards their common goals after the “battle”. The psychological principles of commitment and consistency described by Cialdini play a role here; because we want to remain consistent with what we have said previously, once we start arguing for a side, we believe in it more and become unable to see the value of the other side. This can be destructive if the sides need to work together after the decision has been made, as they will no longer perceive themselves as sharing common ground.

The adversarial style is also destructive for morale; just as it is thrilling to win, it is demoralizing to lose. People go into withdrawal after losing, and will not be as productive. A company that has to rely on the losers of the discussion to implement the decision will probably fail, as those people will not believe in the solution and not be motivated to implement it.

One last issue with the adversarial style that specifically affects managers is that it is difficult to have a true discussion if there is a power differential between the participants. The adversarial style only works if both sides are doing everything they can to win the discussion, but most employees will not dare to contradict their bosses too often. In such discussions, the boss will consistently win, believing that their idea has won on its merits, but the idea will not really be tested until it is exposed to true competition, such as when the product idea goes to the marketplace. Reading Chip Kidd’s book The Learners reminded me of Stanley Milgram’s experiment, a disquieting example of how the presence of authority can alter people’s normal reactions beyond all recognition.

Another style of discussion is the collaborative style. Participants in a collaborative style make the default assumption that the other person’s idea is right, and they just aren’t understanding the idea correctly. When there is confusion, they ask the other person to please explain the idea again, and then restate the idea in their own words to confirm that they are “getting” it. People in a collaborative discussion build off of each others’ good ideas, working together to create something new (shades of Hegel here, where the adversarial style is thesis and antithesis, and the collaborative style is synthesis). The collaborative style assumes that all participants are working towards the same goal, and they are helping each other towards achieving that goal. It’s a non-zero-sum game – everybody can win, as the final idea might include contributions from every participant.

The advantage of the collaborative style is in what happens after the discussion. Because everybody was involved in making the final decision, they feel more invested in the result and are more motivated to implement that result. There are no losers who hang their heads afterwards; even the people whose ideas weren’t used will feel that their ideas were considered fairly as everybody took the time to understand their point. By working together, people create better ideas than when they feel obliged to stick to a side.

The disadvantage of the collaborative style is that it isn’t competitive. Because people’s egos are not on the line, ideas may not get criticized as strongly as they would in the adversarial style. Issues that would have been addressed in a gladiatorial style argument may not be seen in an environment where people are trying to build on each other’s ideas rather than destroy them. While the urge to compete and win is primal, collaboration is slightly less natural to us, so developing the habits to collaborate effectively may take some practice. There is no easy way to keep score in a collaborative discussion, so it is less appealing to those who want a quantitative way to track their status.

I have an obvious bias here. I believe strongly in the collaborative communication style. I think there may be areas where the adversarial style is more appropriate, such as between organizations or in the courtrooms as I mentioned, but within a single company, the collaborative style makes much more sense to me. When everybody is nominally on the same side, and the people involved in the discussion will have to implement the decision, having a collaborative discussion seems like it will be far more effective in the long run than an adversarial discussion where half the people feel like losers afterwards.

I also think the collaborative style is far more human – we should give our fellow employees the benefit of the doubt, to believe that they are trying to contribute something of value to the discussion. We should try to understand their point and extract the value of their experience even if we don’t initially understand. This creates a more generous and motivated environment, where everybody will feel more involved in decisions being made, and the company as a whole can only benefit.

7 thoughts on “Adversarial vs. collaborative communication styles

  1. Thank you for this! It’s helping me clarify some thoughts about recent interpersonal communication in which I engaged.

  2. “One last issue with the adversarial style that specifically affects managers is that it is difficult to have a true discussion if there is a power differential between the participants.”

    This is one of the biggest problem my current company has. It’s run by people who really believe in the adversarial style of communication. Their mentality is that if you fight, and win, then you’ve achieved the best possible result. People who don’t fight’s ideas aren’t worth considering, etc.

    So, they’re baffled why employees are leaving left and right, why their ideas, once they’re out in the public sphere, are getting criticism they hadn’t heard internally, etc. The problem is of course, the power differential. If you pit a joe-schmoe employee against the CEO (and literally, our org chart is such that the CEO currently has a direct connection to *everyone* in the company), there’s no way to clear that power imbalance, *regardless* of the CEO’s intent. And I’m actually convinced the CEO’s intent is honest and good – he just doesn’t realize the underlying problem with this approach.

    For me, I’m definitely a mix of the two – I find that I’m *extremely* adversarial to ideas/processes that come down from above, while I’m much more collaborative regarding ideas that come up from below. It works pretty well for me, because I *don’t care* about the power imbalance – I know the intent is good, and because I have that personal awareness, I feel like I can make adjustments to my tone accordingly. The problem comes when people are roughly at my level in the hierarchy – sometimes I take a really adversarial stance almost unintentionally, and sometimes I’ll take the collaborative approach to the point of being uncritical.

    It’s a balance that takes a lot of conscious effort to strike, and I’m certainly not at a point where I could say I’ve got it down – but I think the overall balance is good, and it’s served me reasonably well so far.

  3. Seppo, I agree that there is a time and place for both, and striking a balance is appropriate, although I’m still looking for that balance myself. I think that the adversarial tone can work when there is a bond of trust and respect between the parties, as it takes some of the ego out of the equation, as there isn’t the worry about the loss of face. It also helps if there is a common understanding of the rules of the game, so that people understand (like you) that their job is to find weaknesses.

  4. For one thing, if a discussion is framed as a battle, it creates opponents of people who perhaps should be on the same side (e.g. departments within a company), making it hard for them to collaborate towards their common goals after the “battle”.

    Like primary elections! 😉

  5. Despite the “advantages”, I’m still not convinced there are contexts where the adversarial communication style is really better in the long run.

    The sometimes tricky thing about collaborative communication is that you need a rich diversity of viewpoints feeding into it. It’s easy for flaws and errors to be overlooked if the participants too like-minded. This is less of a problem with adversarial communication because it actively seeks out conflicting viewpoints, in hypothetical devil’s-advocate mode if necessary.

  6. I think there is a time for both, it really depends on what discussion you are trying to have. If you are trying to flesh out an idea, develop a vision, you will be better served by a collaborative style. An aggressive style will for instance likely stifle any brainstorm session.
    On the other hand, once an idea has been expressed clearly, an adversarial style is useful – the best way to be convinced that a project is robust is by playing devil’s advocate and trying as honestly as possible to find its flaws. If you want to find bugs in an application, for instance, or decide how to improve your product, you have to try to find problems in what has been done.
    That being said, I fully agree on the risks you point at with adversarial style; you’d better not go there unless you trust the others to know it’s not personal!

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