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Janet Gregory: Agile Consultant, Trainer, Advisor, Writer, Speaker

When does feedback or a discussion become an argument?

Someone told me that blogs should be personal. I also believe they should be relevant to your readers, and not just a complaint session. This may be one of my few very personal blogs you will see.

I wrote an article ago with Lisa Crispin on “Testers: The Hidden Resource”, and posted to a yahoo group asking for feedback. What I was looking for, was a response to our ideas. Did it ring a bell with anyone? Did our ideas really transfer over to non-agile teams? We thought so, but wanted other people’s opinions.

I have been a proponent of constructive feedback for years, both on teams and personally. I guess I expected constructive criticism from the group (wrong assumption). Don’t get me wrong, we did get some of good feedback, but not all was constructive. That leads me to the topic of this blog.

What is the difference between a debate, discussion, feedback and an argument? My adhoc definitions (not from a dictionary) as I think of them are:

Debate: opposing views with rules
Discussion – not necessarily opposing views, just talking about a specific topic
Feedback – giving an opinion on a subject to a person
Argument (as in quarrel): opposing views without rules. Without rules, people play on emotions, and might use any form of one ‘upmanship’ they can find.

When I give feedback to people, I have been trained to watch how people respond to what I say. In email or in forums or yahoo groups, we don’t have the ability to watch how people respond. There are some not so subtle ways by using CAPS to make a point (email etiquette says that is yelling). But mostly, we can only take the words at face value.

As a person giving feedback, I cannot control how people respond to how I say things so I usually am pretty careful, but like everyone, I can trigger negative responses without meaning to. In our article, we triggered a few negative responses – not unexpected. What was unexpected was the ‘attack’… at least how I perceived it.

It is not necessarily what you say but how you say it. If you don’t care what the other person’s feeling, then discussions can quickly deteriorate into what I think of as arguments. Of course, there are people, like me, who react negatively to these types of attacks, and tend to shut down. I personally dislike arguments and yelling – I claim childhood issues. I have had my share of arguments and have not found them very fulfilling or useful. It is a no win situation. There are many reasons why people don’t want to participate in heated discussions and it doesn’t necessarily mean they are wimps for not participating in them.

On a personal level, I can take negative feedback, as long as it is not what I perceive as a personal attack or threat against me or a friend. I am the first one to say – it’s not personal, but threats trigger an emotional response whether it is on a public forum or in a private email. I find I would rather shut down the discussion rather than enter into what I perceive as an no win situation or argument. It was suggested that some people might think I was wimp if I chose to do this. Maybe I am, but I can live with it.

I personally don’t read discussions that I perceive fall into a “contest of wills”, so I’m not sure why I would be expected to actually participate in something I don’t believe in.

So, back to the original question? When does feedback degrade into an argument? I think it is whenever someone takes the feedback as a personal attack, whether it is meant that way or not, and then plays to win.

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One comment on “When does feedback or a discussion become an argument?

  1. If you don’t understand the feedback you receive, by all means ask the person who offered it. Feedback that you don’t understand is feedback that you cannot benefit from, so ask for clarification when you need it. Remember that the person who gave you the feedback did so because they genuinely wanted to convey information to you that would help you become a better writer. They wouldn’t want you to be confused and will be happy to explain their comments further if you ask.

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