Buster Benson on the art of productive disagreement

If you argue correctly, you're never wrong - so goes the old saying. In today's podcast we hear about a book that aims to teach people to do just that.

Arguments: for many of us, being at odds with friends or colleagues is enough to elicit a physical reaction. Our heartbeats quicken. Our chests tighten. Our blood pressure rises. And we’ll do almost anything to avoid a negative confrontation.

The keyword here being “negative”. A new book by Buster Benson suggests that, when approached with a positive mindset, arguments can be opportunities for understanding, for new ideas, and ultimately for growth – if we’re willing to check our natural physical reactions and lean into the moment, that is.

As the veteran of a slew of powerhouse companies such as Amazon, Twitter, Slack and Patreon, Buster has always been drawn back to writing about what he’s learned through his experiences working as a product manager for these companies. His book, Why Are We Yelling: The Art of Productive Disagreement, takes some of these learnings and distills them into an actionable guidebook for “how to turn arguments into a productive and enjoyable dialog rather than a bad-natured confrontation.”

Buster sat down with us for a wide-ranging chat that pinballed from our perpetual search for alignment (and why it might be misguided) to the time and place to play devil’s advocate.

Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. We try to avoid disagreement, but it can actually be a gift that offers you a variety of perspectives.
  2. Buster has developed five guidelines for disagreements: use friendly language, understand first, ask honest questions, speak for yourself, and find common ground.
  3. Often in business, we search for alignment too quickly. Buster suggests that true alignment can be found by asking, “How do I get your heart on the same page as mine?” versus “How do I get you to agree to just do what I said?”
  4. Productive disagreement can sharpen us and make us smarter as a group, but only if you have the friction of different perspectives. Too often, we try to eliminate tension, which actually removes a team’s opportunity for growth.
  5. We often make the mistake of trying to reduce disagreements down to data. Instead, try making predictions about what’s going to happen – it creates a learning opportunity instead of a win-lose scenario.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Brian: Buster, thanks for joining us. We are delighted to have you on the show today.

Buster: Thank you. I’m really happy to be here.

Brian: So you’re the author of the recently released book, Why Are We Yelling: The Art of Productive Disagreement. But before we dive into the book itself, give us a bit of background on yourself. How has your career unfolded?

“The things that really excite me and have continuously excited me throughout my career have been how we use technology to make lives better”

Buster: Yeah, I have spent the last 22 or so years – since graduating college in ’98 with a creative writing degree – in the tech world. I emerged thinking I was going to be a poet or a novelist or something, and then Amazon was just down the street, and they were just getting started. The Internet was really exciting, and I joined and never looked back. But I’ve always had this tension between the creative and the progress of technology and how it can help us be better people. I had my own startup after Amazon for a few years. Then I went to Twitter, then Slack, then Patreon, and now I’m back doing my side projects like 750 Words (which builds the habit of writing every day).

Throughout the entire thing, my career has really just taken me down a wandering path through engineering, product management, design. The things that really excite me and have continuously excited me throughout my career have been how we use technology to make lives better. How do we use science and technology and apply it to our practical lives? The art of improving our lives is really interesting to me.

Brian: Did you always have a sense that you’d circle back to writing in some capacity?

Buster: I don’t know if I’ve had a sense, but I’ve realized in hindsight that’s what I’ve always been doing. I’ve done this twice now where, after going through a lot of fast growth startups in Amazon and my own, I came back to it. I opened a bar in an art gallery in Seattle, attempting to bring it back to the community and building a scene for people to show up and be there themselves. After that proved to be really difficult, I went back into the tech world and joined Twitter and Slack. This is my second time attempting to find out how I can return to the creative aspects of my interests and less around showing up and working really hard in a tech company. I think it’s full-circle.

The gift of disagreement

Brian: This book is about the art of productive disagreement, and what you talk about right at the outset is that this requires this shift in mindset. Tell us more about that.

Buster: Yeah, so disagreement is something that we’re all intimately familiar with. And we all know that the way we react to disagreement isn’t always how we want to react to it. But I’ve found there are a couple of common misconceptions we have. One of them is that we treat arguments as bad things, things that should be resolved or shut down or closed. All of our metaphors are around ending them as quickly as possible. But I think they can either be productive – in the sense that they produce something useful over a period of time – or they can be unproductive, which means they make things worse. I like to think of them as neither good nor bad.

Another common misconception is that the whole purpose of the argument is to change someone’s mind. And it’s a very binary way of thinking about it. But again, I prefer to think of there being a mini fruits of a disagreement. There are a lot of things around building a relationship, learning about the world, enjoying yourselves, and ultimately sometimes alignment as well. But there’s a bouquet of fruit that can come out of an argument.

“Fire can burn, and fire can heal, and fire can cook and do all these other useful things. We had to get good at harnessing the power of fire and we need to get good at harnessing the power of disagreement”

And the last misconception I see a lot is that disagreements end. A lot of people think of them as these short things where you find the conclusion, and it’s resolved, and you move on. But if you actually look back and you think about your arguments and your lives with your family, with your coworkers, with yourself, there are recurring patterns that keep on coming up. And even times when you think that they’re over, they’ll come back up again in a different form if they’re not fully done figuring out what their purpose is in your life. So if we embrace the idea that these things can be good – that they’re not all about changing minds and that they don’t need to end – I think we could have a different mindset towards it and actually use them as opportunities rather than just obstacles in our way.

Brian: I think one of the phrases you use was the “gift of disagreement,” so it’s almost leaning in to these things that maybe we have a natural aversion to steer away from as fast as possible. I think that resonated a lot as just a simple point of just changing the perspective here on viewing arguments as a healthy thing, as something to lean into. Is there a core insight you’re really trying to get across once we shift our perception?

Buster: Yeah. If you think of a disagreement in the same sense that we have the gift of fire – fire can burn, and fire can heal, and fire can cook and do all these other useful things. We had to get good at harnessing the power of fire and we need to get good at harnessing the power of disagreement, and that means building this skill. I think of it as a meta-skill: a skill that, if you improve it, will help you level-up all your other skills. And since conversation and disagreement are in almost every single corner of our lives, even a small improvement in your ability to foster productive disagreements will improve your relationships, will improve your work situations, will improve your business, will improve your relationship to politics, will improve even how you talk to yourself and argue with yourself about going to the gym or eating healthy and those kinds of things. So it’s just one skill that can unlock a lot of other improvements in your life.

“The idea is to do a retro or a postmortem for our conversations, because oftentimes in the moment, you can’t operate at your highest capacity”

Brian: Buster, how did you become convinced that this book needed to be written? Where did the confidence come from that it would really resonate?

Buster: It really came out of a deep need of my own that I needed to understand this better. I had been doing this thing where every time I had a disagreement that went off the rails, I would journal about it. I call this “the disagreement journal”. The idea is to do a retro or a postmortem for our conversations, because oftentimes in the moment, you can’t operate at your highest capacity. You can, after the fact, think about “Where did I steer wrong? Where could I adjust better in the future?” And so I really needed the answers to this.

Part of the hunch I had was that we feel – just by speaking to the truth and speaking to our positions – that we can’t possibly be arguing incorrectly or poorly. And it turned out that time after time doing this thing was continuously producing poor results. And so I had to accept that maxim that if you continue to do something that doesn’t work, you’re sort of clinically insane in a way. I wanted to ask myself about the other ways to approach disagreement that might produce better results. And that was the thing that opened up the whole book for me.

Brian: Disagreement journal, that almost sounds like an exercise in from marital therapy or something like that.

Buster: Yeah, journaling is a great thing for almost every venue of our lives.

Five guidelines for disagreements

Brian: What are some of the key lessons you’re trying to share through this book?

Buster: After trying to synthesize a lot of the different wisdom on this topic for many different domains, I came up with these five guidelines.

  1. The first one is to use friendly language in a disagreement. You’re not going to actually gain any objective ground by using insulting or harmful language. We understand this, so I put that one up front, because it’s an obvious one. But it’s harder to do in practice than it seems at first.
  2. Understand first. This comes from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and it’s the idea that before you try to get someone else to understand you, you should try to understand what they’re saying.
  3. That leads us to the third point, which is: ask honest, open questions. Ask questions that spark surprising answers, because you begin to understand the other person’s perspectives by asking them questions that you don’t already have a prebuilt judgment about. A lot of times, user researchers are really good at this, because they want to find as much information as possible by asking open questions. And we can use that in their own life as well.
  4. Speak for yourself. It’s so easy for us to project onto other people and tell them what they’re thinking or tell them what their motivations are. It’s often both insulting and incorrect. Rather than doing that, speak for yourself. Speak about what you believe, what you care about and how you are interpreting them. Let them speak for themselves, as well. If you’re arguing with someone who’s not in the room, it’s an opportunity to invite them into the room and ask them directly for their perspective.
  5. We think of arguments as battles that happen between fixed positions that are right and wrong. But often there’s a much richer landscape to move around in a position. And so we need to help each other become better. Sometimes that means finding a third position that feels good for both sides so you can understand both perspectives are possible to have, even though some might be more informed than others. And we can help each other become better – both at having better beliefs and better positions, but also being better at arguing itself.

Brian: You’re talking about using friendly language. Understand first instead of jumping to persuade. Actually ask honest, open questions. You mentioned trying to ask something that’s surprising. The idea of speaking for yourself is funny, because people often feel the need to speak for their entire company or segment. Are these easy to learn? How fast or slow is the learning curve here?

Buster: I think of these as conversational habits, and as many of our habits are, they’re automatic. When we talk, oftentimes we’re using these programs and these familiar loops of thinking and words that have been useful in the past. So it’s hard in the sense that finding a way to become aware and become mindful during a conversation is hard. The book starts with this idea of watching your anxiety and seeing what sparks it, because that’s the doorway into tweaking some of these things and making them work. I have found personally that once that was an intentional practice, it was not that hard. It was very easy to catch myself asking leading questions or catch myself speaking for someone else or catch myself making someone else understand me before I truly understand where they’re coming from. And of course, friendly language is very easy to spot as well. But the hard part is entering a conversation – entering a disagreement – and then still keeping hold of the wheel in terms of what kinds of things come out of your mouth.

Brian: What you brought up there around the triggers or anxiety sparks, what you call them in the book, that really resonated a lot for me, and I think a lot of my colleagues are probably smirking as they hear me say that. They’ve probably seen me have those sparks. But I think it’s these little things that happen that make us much less likely to get into a healthy disagreement. Are there any other triggers that you’ve heard people talk about that really they had to work on to almost hit the mute button on?

“I think of disagreement as the way we sharpen each other. Productive disagreement can sharpen us and make us smarter as a group, but you need that tension”

Buster: We all have our own bag of tricks in terms of how we navigate this anxiety. Some of us process out loud. You have to work out the disagreement for other people. Some of us go to our trusted friends and bounce it around. Some of us who resort to social media to work things out. We all have these self medication things. The important thing is to start noticing them. For me, the thing that I use to catch myself in a disagreement is just merely the elevation of my heart rate and blood pressure. It might happen a little earlier, too. It might happen when they say something, but then I don’t actually leap into the conversation for another minute or 10 seconds, and that’s enough time to reorient myself and say: “Okay wait, this could be really great. What is the thing I don’t know about this conversation that I can learn from instead of just repeating the same thing?” Because obviously having the same conversation going in circles is not rewarding or enjoyable. So there are a lot of good reasons to try to avoid that.

The search for alignment

Brian: Let me try to bring this into some themes we all talk about and use in the work context. One of them is “alignment”, this cheesy word, but everyone knows how critical it is and we keep talking about it because it’s so important. Do you think this constant search for alignment unintentionally shuts down productive disagreement?

Buster: This is a fantastic lens to look at disagreement. We use alignment in two different ways. One of them is that your hearts and minds are aligned in the same direction, and you need this for a vision to take hold and to work together. You need to care about the same core values. But we also use it to represent basically a contract or a concession. And often in that argument, we’re trying to get the other person to admit they’re wrong, which is a way to get the concession or wave the surrender flag. But it’s not going to get their hearts aligned with yours. So if we truly wanted alignment, we would approach it from a more holistic sense of, “How do I get your heart on the same page as mine?” versus “How do I get you to agree to just do what I said?” That can often work in the short term and then over the long term create cultural debt or resentment.

And then the idea of “disagree and commit” is the same way. You can use this for good or for bad. There’s a lot of possibility for using this for good in the terms of: “Let’s take everything we believe and everything we know, and – even though we don’t see things the same way – let’s tell both stories and predict what’s going to happen. Then let’s choose one of the paths, see what happens, compare notes afterwards, and have that accountability to return to.” It can be used for both good and evil, but I do think there’s a lot of potential for good.

Brian: And maybe it’s just that the precursor to either of those often requires at least the opportunity for productive disagreement. And if you don’t allow the space for that, alignment is unlikely to genuinely be there. Is that the way you’re thinking about it?

“You need the friction of different perspectives. You need the different worldviews, because that’s how you identify the blind spots”

Buster: Yeah, we can’t just take someone’s word and say, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” If you feel they’re still holding back something – especially when there’s a power dynamic – there are a lot of incentives to say, “Okay, shut your mouth and do the work, even though you think it’s going to fail.” It’s not going to turn into the best work. You have to dig a little deeper in those situations and find out what it is that you still feel unsettled about and how you can bring that to the surface. At least you could feel heard at the same time as you commit.

Brian: How about the approach of playing devil’s advocate? Where do you think that fits into this?

Buster: Yeah, I have a tip around this game called The Monkey’s Paw, which is basically the devil’s advocate approach of putting our proposals on the table and then just tearing them apart. You’re asking, ”How can I make this proposal fail in the most unexpected ways?” as a way to surface all of the potential negative sides that oftentimes feel like criticisms, but in a conversation that is safer. It feels like “Okay, these are just potential ways that this can unfold,” and it’s not as threatening. If you’re using devil’s advocate not to threaten the person’s position but to reveal blind spots, then it’s good. But if it’s really just being used to bash on someone’s ideas, it could be harmful.

Brian: Another related concept we’ve talked a lot about here – and actually Emmet Connolly, our design director wrote a blog post about it – is healthy tension. As a product manager, you almost want to create an environment where people are optimizing to force the conversation around, “Hey, what’s the right trade-off there?” Do you think that’s in the same ballpark here?

Buster: Yes, absolutely. I think of disagreement as the way we sharpen each other. Productive disagreement can sharpen us and make us smarter as a group, but you need that tension. You need the friction of different perspectives. You need the different worldviews, because that’s how you identify the blind spots. That’s how you end up iterating and improving over time, and oftentimes people want to remove that tension and that actually removes all opportunity for growth for the team as well. So you definitely have to have the tension.

The head-heart-hands framework

Brian: Speaking of tension, one thing in companies that you’ve worked in is this need for speed. There’s a deliberate pressure we put on ourselves: “Hey, we need to continually be making progress and make it as efficiently as we can.” One of the core things, particularly for PMs, is ensuring people are making decisions and moving forward. How much of this is actually the cause of our inability to have productive disagreement, because you’re trying to drive forward?

Buster: A mistake we often make is when we’re in a disagreement, and we try to reduce it down to data. I have this framework with the realms of the head, the heart, and the hands. The head is where information and data can resolve the disagreement. We often try to force all of our disagreements into this realm, where if we just look up the data or do an experiment, then we’ll find the answer. I think that’s the wrong path, though. It may be more helpful to ask: “How should we prioritize this? Should we do this or should we not do that?” Which is definitely the realm of the heart with subjective values, beliefs, preferences, risk tolerance – all that stuff. But we try to collapse it all down into something that can be solved with information.

Instead, solve it with a process or a prediction or something that will move you forward and make you smarter as a result of testing it. If you’re trying to guess whether or not something is more productive or better or worse for the company, just collect predictions about what’s going to happen. Pick one, and then learn from it. And this speeds us up, because if you’re just going around the table arguing about whether or not it’s important, you’re not going to ever learn anything. You only learn something by saying, “Let’s take what we believe is important and test it and see what happens.” And then we can all agree to learn from what happens and continue to improve.

“You can’t just download a new app or use a new product and get better at disagreement. You have to think about the people. It’s always about the people”

This works really well in large groups, where obviously you’re never going to hear from every single person in the room or every single person in the company, but you can collect their thoughts in the forms of predictions and move forward.

Brian: Do you really see this as a very fluid space between work skills and life skills?

Buster: Yeah, I do think that they’re fluid, because the thing at the heart of both work and life is that we are having conversations with people about things we care about. In relationships, we’re talking about the family and how to raise children and how to make our lives fulfilling. At work, we’re talking with other people about how to be impactful, how to move fast, how to have good outcomes, how to work together. But both ideas are operated through conversations. We have to go to work, but these days we have so many meetings, we have so many emails, so many Slack channels. And that’s the venue where these problems need to be addressed.

You can’t just download a new app or use a new product and get better at disagreement. You have to think about the people. It’s always about the people. In both work and life, everything we do involves working with other people. These skills can apply, and oftentimes you run into the same problems in all domains.

Brian: Although we’ve had some chats, it’s definitely treading on risky ground to view things so fluidly between these skills. Sometimes people may not want you to use your manager vocabulary with them. This superpower here really does have that broad utility, but hopefully you can do it in a way where no one calls you out and says, “You just read a workbook, and now you’re trying that on me.”

“You have to first build that relationship and build the shared language between you to talk about things, and it’s a more fundamental level than just applying these practices”

Buster: Definitely. If you bring the lingo from one domain into the other, it’s not as respectful, right? You don’t want to treat your wife as your direct report or something. So you have to first build that relationship and build the shared language between you to talk about things, and it’s a more fundamental level than just applying these practices. It’s about using conversation itself to build the connection and to build the opportunity for insight. And you don’t need to bring in the lingo as well. Because yeah, that could be really annoying.

Brian: So as we’re wrapping up here, let’s zoom out a bit here and move away from the book. Where is your inspiration coming from? Where are your fruitful sources of insight?

Buster: This might sound like pandering, but podcasts have been such a treasure trove of information recently, and I really respect so many podcast hosts who are taking these long formats and really opening up the conversation around things that would never fit into radio or TV or blog posts or tweets and those kinds of things.

Krista Tippett is one of my favorites. She does the On Being podcast. John Vervaeke is an amazing professor who did a 50-episodes series on YouTube about the meaning crisis. And David Fuller does Rebel Wisdom, which brings lots of different perspectives. Anyone who is taking multiple perspectives and giving them a chance to be heard and giving them the benefit of the doubt and teasing apart their perspectives – all those people are just doing really great work, and I’m really proud that we have this in our culture.

Brian: Yeah, it’s interesting the wealth that’s out there. It’s funny. I wonder how many of us thought, “Jeez, podcasts are going to explode.” Was it obvious to you at the outset that this would be your go-to source?

Buster: No, I don’t listen to the radio. I didn’t have any idea that it was going to happen. I remember when Evan Williams started Odeo and helped coin the term “podcast.” We were like: “What? Who has time to listen to things on your headphones? What about working and stuff?” It took me by surprise, but there’s so much in a voice that can be conveyed and the fact that it’s a long format and you can subscribe to them. In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense. If anyone had tried to build a business for it off the bat, it probably would’ve been hard to convince people.

Brian: Well, in the spirit of not doing a self indulgent podcast that goes on too long, let’s wrap up there. Where can our audience keep up with your work?

Buster: My website is busterbenson.com. That’s where my book is and all the other projects. I’m @buster on Twitter, I’m on LinkedIn. So you can basically find me anywhere on the internet that way.