Methodology Debates: Traps and Transformations

(This article is adapted from work I did with Johanna Rothman, at the 1st Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference. It’s never been widely published, so here you go.)

As a context-driven testing methodologist, I am required to think through the methods I use. Sometimes that means debating methodology with people who have a different view about what should be done. Over time, I’ve gained a lot of experience in debate. One thing I’ve learned is that most people have good ideas, but few people know how to debate them. This is too bad, because a successful debate can make a community stronger, while avoiding debates creates a nurturing environment for weak ideas. Let’s look at how to avoid the traps that make debates fail, and how to transform disagreement into powerful consensus.

Sometimes a debate is really part of a war. The advice below won’t help much if that is the case. This advice is more for situations where you are highly motivated to create or maintain a working relationship with someone you disagree with– such as when you work in the next cubicle from the guy.


  • Conflicting Terminology: Be alert to how you are using technical terms. A common term like “bug” has different meanings to different people. If someone says “Unit testing is absolutely essential to good software quality” among your first concerns should be “What does he mean by ‘unit testing’, ‘essential’, and ‘quality’?” Beware, sometimes a debate about definitions bears important fruit, but it can also be another trap. You can spend all your energy on them without necessarily touching the marrow of the subject. On the other hand, you can allow yourself to understand and even use someone else’s terminology in your debate without committing yourself to changing your preferred terminology in general.
  • Paradigm Conflict: A paradigm is an all-inclusive way of explaining the world, generally tied into terminology and assumptions about practices and contexts. Two different paradigms may explain the same phenomena in totally different ways. When two people from different paradigms come together, each may seem insane to the other. Whenever you feel that your opponent is insane, maybe that’s time to stop and consider that you are trying to cross a paradigmatic boundary. In which case, you should talk about that, first.
  • Ambiguous Metrics: Don’t be seduced by numbers. They can mean anything. The problem is knowing what they do, in fact, mean. When someone quotes numbers at me, I wonder how the metric was collected, and what influenced the people who collected them. I wonder if the numbers were sanitized in any way. For instance, when someone tells me that he performed 1000 test cases, I wonder if he’s talking about trivial test cases, or vital ones. There’s no way to know unless I personally review the tests, or conduct a detailed interview of the tester.
  • Confusing Feeling and Rationality: Beware of confusing feeling communication with rational communication. Be alert to the intensity of the feelings associated with the ideas being presented. Many debates that seem to be about ideas may indeed be about loyalty, trust, respect, and other fundamental issues. A statement like “C++ is the best language in the world. All other languages are garbage” may actually mean “C++ is the only language I know. I am comfortable with what I know. I don’t want to concern myself with languages I don’t already know, because then I feel like a beginner, again.” There’s an old saying that you can’t use logic to refute a conclusion that wasn’t arrived at through logic. That may not be strictly true, but it’s a helpful guideline. So, if you sense a strange intensity around the debate, your best bet may be to stop talking about ideas and start exploring the feelings.
  • Confusing Outcome and Understanding: Sometimes one person can be debating for the purpose of getting a particular outcome, while the other person is debating to understand the subject better, or help you understand them. Confusing these approaches can lead to a lot of unnecessary pain. So, consider saying what your goal is, and ask the other person what they want to get out of the debate.
  • Hidden Context: You may not know enough about the world the other person lives in. Maybe work life for them is completely different than it is for you. Maybe they live under a different set of requirements and challenges. Try saying “I want to understand better why you feel the way you do. Can you tell me more about your [life, situation, work, company, etc.]?”
  • Hidden History: You may not know enough about other debates and other struggles that shaped the other person’s position. If you notice that the other person seems to be making many incorrect assumptions about what you mean, or putting words in your mouth, consider asking something like “Have you ever had this argument with someone else?”
  • Hidden Goals: Not knowing what the other person wants from you. You might try learning about that by asking “Are we talking about the right things?”or “What would you like me to do?” Keep any hint of sarcasm out of your voice when you say that. Your intent should be to learn about what they want, because maybe you can give it to them without compromising anything that’s important to you.
  • False Urgency: Feeling like you are trapped and have to debate right now. It’s always fair to get prepared to discuss a difficult subject. You don’t have to debate someone at a particular time just because that person feels like doing it right then. One way to get out of this trap is just to say “This subject is important to me, but I’m not prepared to debate it right now.”
  • Flipping the Bozo Bit: If you question the sanity, good faith, experience, or intelligence of the person who disagrees with you, then the debate will probably end right there. You’ll have a war, instead. So, if you do that, in the heat of the moment, your best bet for recovery may be to take a break. When you come back, ask questions and listen carefully to be sure you understand what the other guy is trying to say.
  • Short-Term Focus: Hey, think of the future. Successful spouses know that the ability to lose an argument gracefully can help strengthen the marriage. I lose arguments to my wife so often that she gives me anything I want. The same goes for teams. Consider a longer term view of the debate. For instance, if you sense an impasse, you could say “I’m worried that we’re arguing too much. Let’s do it your way.” or “Tell you what: let’s try it your way as an experiment, and see what happens.” or “Maybe we need to get some more information before we can come to agreement on this.”

Transforming Disagreement

An important part of transforming disagreement is to synchronize your terminology and frames of reference, so that you’re talking about the same thing (avoiding the “pro-life vs. pro-choice” type of impasse). Another big part is changing a view of the situation that allows only one choice into one that allows many reasonable choices (the “reasonable people can bet on different horses” position). Here are some ideas for how to do that:

  • Transform absolute statements into context-specific statements. Consider changing “X is true” to “In situation Y, X is true.” In other words, make your assumptions explicit. That allows the other person to say “I’m talking about a different situation.”
  • Transform certainties into probabilities and alternatives. Consider changing “X is true” to “X is usually true” or”X, Y, or Z can be true, but X is the most likely” That allows the other person to question the basis of your probability estimate, but it also opens the door to the possibility of resolving the disagreement as a simpler matter of differing opinions on probability rather than the more fundamental problem of what is possible.
  • Transform rules into heuristics. Consider changing “You should do X” to something like”If you have problem Y and want to solve it, doing something like X might help.” The first statement is probably a suggestion in the clothing of a moral imperative. But in technical works, we are usually not dealing with morals, but rather with problems. If someone tells me that I should write a test plan according to the IEEE-829 template, then I wonder what problem that will solve, whether I indeed have that problem, how important that problem is, whether 829 would solve it, and what other ways that same problem might be solved.
  • Transform implicit stakeholders and concerns into explicit stakeholders and concerns. Consider changing “X is bad” to “I don’t like X” or”I’m worried about X” or “Stakeholder Y doesn’t like X.” There are no judgments without a judger. Bring the judger out into the open, instead of using language that make an opinion sound like a law of physics. This opens the door to talk about who matters and who gets to decide, which can be a more important issue than the decision itself. Another response you can make to “X is bad” is to” ask compared to what?” which will bring out the unspecified standard.
  • Translate the other person’s story into your terms and check for accuracy. Consider saying something like “I want to make sure I understand what you’re telling me. You’re saying that…” then follow with “Does that sound right?” and listen for agreement. If you sense a developing impasse, try suspending your part of the argument and become an interviewer, asking questions to make sure the other person’s story is fully told. Sometimes that’s a good last resort option. If they challenge you to prove them wrong or demand a reply, you can say “It’s a difficult issue. I need to think about it some more.”
  • Translate the ideas into a diagram. Try drawing a picture that shows both views of the problem. Sometimes that helps put a disagreement into perspective (literally). This can help especially in a “blind men and the elephant” situation, where people are arguing because they are looking at different parts of the same thing, without realizing it. For instance, if I argue that testing should start late, and someone else argues that testing should start early, we can draw a timeline and put things on the timeline that represent the various issues we’re debating. We may discover that we are making different assumptions about the cost of bugs curve, and which point we can draw several curves and discuss the forces that affect them.
  • Translate total disagreement into shades of agreement. Do you completely disagree with the other person, or disagree just a little? Consider looking at it as shades of agreement. Is it total opposition or is it just discomfort. This is important because I know, sometimes, I begin an argument with a vague unease about someone’s point of view. If they then react defensively to that, as if I’ve attacked them, then I might feel driven firmly to the other side of the debate. Sometimes when looking for shades of agreement, you discover that you’ve been in violent agreement all along.
  • Transform your goal from being right to being a team. Is there a way to look at the issue being debated as related to the goal of being a strong team? This is something you can do in your own mind to reframe the debate. Is it possible that the other person is arguing less from the force of logic and more from the fear of being ignored? If so, then being a good listener may do more to resolve the debate than being a good thinker. Every debate is a chance to strengthen a relationship. If you’re on the “right” side, you can strengthen it by being a gracious winner and avoiding I-told-you-so behavior. If you’re on the “wrong” side, you can strengthen the team by publicly acknowledging that you have changed you mind, that you have been persuaded. When you don’t know who is right, you can still respect feelings and consider how the outcome and style of the debate might harm your ability to work together.
  • Transform conclusions to processes. If the other person is holding onto a conclusion you disagree with, consider addressing the process by which they came to adopt that conclusion. Talk about whether that process was appropriate and whether it could be revisited.
  • Express faith in the other person. If the debate gets tense, pause and remind the other person that you respect his good faith and intentions. But only say that if it’s true. If it’s not true, then you should stop debating about the idea immediately, and deal instead with your feelings of mistrust. Any debate that’s not based on trust is doomed from the start, unless of course it’s not really a debate, but a war, a game, or a performance put on for an audience.
  • Wait and listen. Sometimes, a conversation looks like a debate, and feels like a debate, but is actually something else. Sometimes we just need to vent for a bit, and be heard. That’s one reason why being a good listener is not only polite, but eminently practical.
  • Express appreciation when someone tries to transform your position. When you notice someone making an effort to use these transformations in a conversation with you, thank them. This is a good thing. It’s a sign that they are trying to connect with you and help you express you ideas.

3 thoughts on “Methodology Debates: Traps and Transformations

  1. This is a wonderful post and I loved reading it. There are words of wisdom here that you have demonstrated and preached in many of your writings online. It is great that now we have a single source of reference.

    I have tried to apply some of your advises in my local online forum with some success. Well actually, when I start asking questions to understand the intentions and disagreements of the argument, usually the debate dies down without moving forward. Similar effect when I express the context I myself come from. Although some of my well wishers think that this actually reduces the activity of the forum, I don’t think that it is necessarily bad. It does encourage people to think through their arguments and disengage from mindless mudslinging. In retrospect I think it has helped to build the quality of the forum posts, and readers now eagerly wait to read posts more frequently. Well, its a start.

    I also feel that your advises have contributed in my office where my test team has a wonderful relation with the programmers and I with the project manager. We do have disagreements but we do have respect for each others skills and opinions. Thanks again for your words of wisdom.

    Sajjadul Hakim

    [James’ Reply: Thanks Sajjadul. I hope the recent weather disaster in your country didn’t hurt you too much.]

  2. James,

    I specially liked the second part of the post … suggestions. I would use them as “guidewords” to improve my communication especially with those who “typically” disagree with me. I am termed as “sticky arguer”. Other day a colleague of mine expressed his shock said “I can not believe that you accepted this without argument .. I am feeling unconfortable. something wrong with you.”

    I am work in heavy factory/process driven testing world, talking about context and testing as human intellectual activity has been my point of debate. Using the suggestions here, I will be able to convert few strong disgreements to some shades of agreement.

    At times you face people who do not argue with good faith and to gain something. The argument is about holding to their ground, value system, faith and beliefs. The challenge would then about “when to stop” arguing.

    Thanks for this great stuff …

    Debating, Arguing is a core tester attribute … your suggestions add “sense and rationalism” to an arguement hence make the arguement more credible


  3. I was reading something recently where a blogger quoted his high school physics teacher. I wish I’d heard something like this from mine. Roughly, the preamble to any lecture was “At our current state of ignorance, what we think we know about {x} is…”

    Harder to do than it looks. Even harder to be heard. We seem to be wired to crave (and assert) certainty.

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