Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Argument Clinic: Seven Takeaways

Co-written by Sumana Harihareswara.



At PyCon US 2023, Sumana and Jacob co-presented a play, "Argument Clinic: What Healthy Professional Conflict Looks Like" . We co-wrote this and co-starred in it as part of Sumana’s series of tech conference plays. The video is now up on YouTube.

In “Argument Clinic,” Jacob and Sumana play two engineering managers who get into an argument. At first, they aren’t on our best behavior and both of them act pretty counterproductively. They recover from that to have a more useful conversation, and emerge from it with not only a resolution to the immediate problem but also a stronger working relationship. As our characters show this on stage, an onscreen scorecard tells you when they’ve succeeded or failed at each of seven key skills. In this post we’ll explain those conflict resolution skills in more detail, and sources for further reading.

Conflict at work is inevitable, and the answer is neither to stifle it nor to let hostility decide a winner. Teams that can’t handle people disagreeing end up losing steam, irresolute – or the first person to state their opinion gets to make all the decisions. Teams where every disagreement turns into a fight end up losing people, missing out on the ideas of people who don’t feel like entering the boxing ring, and thus making worse decisions. To handle conflict in healthy, professional ways, practice these seven skills.

The main goal of our play was to demonstrate skills you can use during disagreements that’ll help resolve them professionally. During the play, we had slides up that indicated when each of our characters were using those skills, or egregiously failing to use them.


Active Listening

The phrase “active listening” can sound like therapy-speak. It’s an umbrella term for a set of skills that help you make sure you’re actually paying attention to what the other person is saying, comprehending it, and completing the circuit by conveying to them that you have understood them.

Here are some of those skills we demonstrate throughout the play:

Don’t rudely interrupt. Interruptions are rude … or are they? In this play, we see our characters treat interruptions in three different ways:

  • Scene 1 and the start of Scene 2: rude interruptions — they’re talking over each other, not listening, cutting each other off. This is bad and unprofessional, the kind of interruptions we talk about when we say “don’t interrupt”.
  • Scene 2: walking on eggshells. No interruptions, now: both characters are pausing, speaking very deliberately, trying to pay attention and be polite. This is better, and as a baseline for discussing something contentious, a much better place to start than what we saw in Scene 1.
  • Scene 3: constructive interruption: something interesting happens in Scene 3: the characters start to interrupt each other again, but, oddly, it’s OK now! This version of interruptions, where people finish each other's sentences, extend what they’re saying (“yes, and…”) and otherwise interrupt in a way that’s constructive is actually a sign of trust, something linguistics professor Deborah Tannen named cooperative overlap.

Almost paradoxically, interruptions are a sign of either low- or high-trust conversations! You have to look at the specifics of the interruption style to see which is which.

So as a blanket piece of advice, “don’t interrupt” is a good starting point — but in high-trust conversations, collaborative/cooperative interruptions are just fine.

Listen with genuine curiosity: try to really pay attention to what the other person is saying, to understand their point, without judgment at first, and without trying to think ahead to what you’re going to say next. Early on, Manny is particularly bad at this: through most of the beginning of Scene 2, he’s not really paying attention to Parvati; he’s only listening for ways to “score points” by correcting or disagreeing with her. For example, when Parvati explains to him what work will be required to release Tollbooth, he ignores nearly all of what she said other than “20%” so that he can correct her: “except you said more than 20%.”

It isn’t until our characters start really listening to each other that they’re able to make any progress. Once Manny understands how important Tollbooth is to morale, and once Parvati understands how this work threatens Manny’s already-stretched management skills, they’re able to help each other and progress. This starts with listening. Be curious, not judgemental.

Ask good questions: As you’re listening (or reading, in chat), indicate that you’re paying attention to what they’re saying. In voice and in-person conversations, part of this is often nonverbal indicators such as eye contact, nodding, and so on. Another important way to demonstrate that you are understanding and processing the other person’s statements is to ask relevant questions. Manny checks out for a bit during Parvati’s initial explanation of the history of the Tollbooth project, but then interjects, “was all of that in the Infrastructure Slack?” which at least does demonstrate that he’s been paying attention. Later, when Manny grouses about the 20% time policy and rhetorically asks “But isn’t the rest of the time, the other 80%, supposed to be up to their manager?” Parvati catches his odd emphasis and asks, “What do you mean, ‘supposed’?” And Manny returns the favor by noticing her concerns about retention, and her description of her team’s work as “a grind” and “a slog,” which helps him put the clues together to ask about her burnout.

Disagree with the point, not the person: We go into the “how” of this in the “don’t attack the person” section of “Focus on the problem,” but this is also part of active listening.

Lots of active listening is about trying to understand the other person, and signal that understanding. Sometimes people get frustrated with this because it all seems so agreeable — “what if I understand what they’re saying and still think they’re wrong!?” But that’s a misunderstanding of active listening: when you’re doing this right, active listening techniques can help clarify and be specific about where you disagree, and present that disagreement in a way that’s respectful and not personal. You can  articulate that you know where someone is coming from, and that you respect them and their point of view, but still disagree. In the last minute of the play, we see that Parvati and Manny fundamentally disagree on what shape the company’s open source strategy should take. But we also know that they’ll be able to use their improved working relationship to talk about it fairly calmly.

Don’t shout: It’s very easy to raise your voice more than you intend or notice when you get passionate, and it often comes off as hostile and gets the other person upset, or even scared. Our characters raise their voices early on, but once they get ahold of themselves, they speak at a more appropriate volume.

This point gets tricky because of bias. Some people’s behavior gets perceived as “unprofessional,” “shrill,” “scary,” and otherwise workplace-inappropriate at a much lower threshold than other people’s, because systemic bias distorts how we perceive the words and actions of women, Black and brown people, and other marginalized people. So, if you’re in a workplace conflict with someone, and their volume is bothering you, try to check yourself for bias.

Check your assumptions: Notice when what someone’s saying is ambiguous and you’re assuming a particular implication. For example, “We need to get this ready by Friday” doesn’t necessarily mean “therefore, we need to stay late tonight.” It’s better to use questions and restatements with phrasings like “If I understand you correctly” than to confidently put words in their mouth with “what you’re saying is,” and you should avoid incredulous restatements that start with “I can’t believe you’re saying.”

In the first scene, Parvati hears Manny say “I can handle paying attention to important stuff, but…” and leaps to the accusation, “You think living up to our company’s core values isn’t important?” By the last scene, starting with Parvati’s offer “On all these related things, I want to try to make sure I understand what they are, and where you’re coming from,” the two characters spend several minutes checking their assumptions about what the other person thinks, means, and wants.

Say what you feel & need

It was very important to Jacob to demonstrate what it looks like to acknowledge emotions at work, and to straightforwardly ask for what you need. This sounds simple enough, but it’s anything but. There’s this idea that emotions don’t belong at work – that at work, we need to be cold, dispassionate, “objective”1. This is where Manny is at the beginning of the play: he’s never acknowledged feeling stuck or frustrated by reaching the limits of his leadership ability, and he’s never given space to the people on his team to acknowledge their emotions.

Thing is, we always have options about what to do with our emotions, but emotions aren’t optional. We’re emotional beings; we have feelings whether we want to or not. If you don’t learn to acknowledge your emotions, at least internally, you’ll end up letting your emotions lead you.

Here’s a very common example. You’re having a disagreement about something minor, say, the correct approach to take to fix a bug. You keep making the same suggestion, but the person you’re talking to seems just … totally on a different wavelength. They’re not just disagreeing with your option; they appear to have not even heard it. It’s pretty normal to get frustrated by this! What many will do here, though, isn’t productive; they’ll continue to make the same argument, but get louder or more emphatic, as if by shouting they’ll somehow break through and be heard.

What if, instead, they said something like: “I’m getting frustrated: I’m not sure you’ve heard what I’m suggesting. Can I make sure you understand my point, even if you disagree with it, before we move on?” It’s not like this is a magic bullet, but this kind of direct approach is significantly more likely to move things forward professionally than the escalating argument you’ll get by not saying what you feel and what you want.

Our characters demonstrate several tactics that you can use to help you state your needs and feelings:

  • Be assertive (but not aggressive): Manny goes from aggressively simply saying that there’s no way he can spare 50% of Jay’s time to asserting what he would need first (a clearer scope of work). Similarly, as we were cutting the play to fit in 30 minutes, we deleted a moment where Parvati and Manny talk more about him missing information she’d shared in the Slack channel. She asserts her needs by asking, “We as a group agreed that all of us at our level would keep tabs on the conversation happening in that particular thread. This is something that I need to be able to know you will do. Can you do that?”
  • Identify and then verbalize what you’re feeling: Manny’s first mention of the recession is intertwined with accusing Parvati of unfocused, wasteful spending of the company’s time. Later he’s able to unpack that, acknowledging his memories of the 2008 recession, and later still, admitting that he’s been using “revenue” as an all-purpose cudgel because he doesn’t know how else to motivate his team.
  • Notice your own defensiveness: Parvati reflects on the noise in the Slack channel and acknowledges that she’s been part of the problem.
  • Explain where you’re coming from: Each person presents their point of view, sharing where they're coming from, their assessment of the current situation, and what rules of thumb, principles, or decision frameworks they're using. Parvati explains the company’s history of open source contribution, and about how and why the open source work is helping morale on her team, and finally her burnout. Manny shares the trouble he’s having motivating his team and feeling they don’t trust him. One chunk we cut for length had Manny explaining that, at a previous workplace, they open sourced something, the team got very distracted from the company’s core priorities, and he couldn’t get their focus back.

For further reading, some frameworks that might be helpful for this point in particular:

Don’t argue in public

Keep arguments private. Scene 1 opens with a conversation that very quickly devolves into an argument, a pretty ugly one by the end. This argument takes place in a shared, public space (a break room). This is a poor choice for both of them: this argument, if overheard, could have consequences. The mention of layoffs at the end of the scene is the most obvious example of this: if someone heard Manny out of context, they might believe that layoffs are on the table, and he’d have to do some serious damage control2. But more subtly: both of these people are leaders, and, like all leaders, are partially responsible for setting the team’s culture. Demonstrating professionalism is part of that. Engaging in an ugly, unprofessional argument is not a good look. If overheard, this argument could damage their reputation, diminish people’s respect for them, make a boss question their judgment, etc.

Ideally, nobody would have an argument that “hot” at work at all … but choosing to have the argument in public is a particularly bad decision. They’re both lucky nobody overheard them.

Do disagree in public. This is not to say that you can’t have public disagreement at work! In fact, high-trust teams have public disagreements regularly — but those disagreements are friendly and professional, with a great deal of empathy and respect. Good leaders are comfortable having these kinds of discussions in public because they’re modeling professionalism and respect — reinforcing a culture of trust, rather than breaking it down.

So what’s the difference between “arguing” and “disagreeing professionally”? We’ve shown that in the play! Scene 1 is an argument: unprofessional, inappropriate to have in public (or anywhere at work, honestly). Scene 3 is a professional disagreement. They’re negotiating in good faith, working through a conflict. It happens to be in private, but Manny and Parvati could easily conduct this part of the conversation in front of others: it’s professional, collaborative, and even friendly by the end. It’s a model of professional disagreement.


We emphasize two main skills here: apologizing well, and receiving apologies well.

Apologize well. Genuinely apologize when you’ve crossed a line or caused difficulty for someone. SorryWatch’s 6 steps to a good apology are a good reference here.

One thing “Argument Clinic” tries to convey is how tone matters (this is one reason we made a play, not just this post). Early in the play, Manny and Parvati say “I’m sorry” insincerely or even sarcastically. But later, their vocal deliveries successfully communicate their genuine contrition, as when Parvati acknowledges that she’s a reason why the Slack channel is too noisy.

As SorryWatch says, be really careful with explanations in your apologies, which can easily shade into excuses. There's a popular saying that “intent isn’t magic,” which means that good intentions don't excuse the mistake they made, because intentions don’t alleviate the mistake’s impact. The common example is that if you step on someone’s foot, it doesn’t matter if you meant to or not – it still hurts! But we agree with a more nuanced response to that: “Intent is metadata.” The apology’s recipient may care about your intentions as part of understanding your remorse and how committed you are to not making the mistake again. Yes, my foot hurts whether you intended to step on it or not, but if I find out that you go around deliberately stepping on people’s feet because you like hurting people, that’s pretty different from an accidental misstep.

Receive apologies well. Don’t minimize or dismiss them by saying “it’s ok”; say “thank you” or that you appreciate them, and honor the other person’s apology and vulnerability by taking them seriously.

Don’t be sarcastic/snarky

Sarcasm is a power tool; it’s quick, cutting, and dangerous, and to be used under controlled conditions. We’re both people who can be quite sarcastic or snarky when talking with friends. But that’s a very high-trust context. Once you’re in an argument, you need to take extra care to check that you’re communicating what you intend. Someone who’s already upset with you is likely to take your offhand sarcastic or snarky remark as contemptuous, and as John Gottman will tell you, contempt is the death knell for a working relationship. So don’t make digs just to score points. Say what you mean.

Manny and Parvati struggle with this early on. Parvati’s “I’m sorry, I think you missed the memo on this” and Manny’s “AND it’s not on the roadmap” indicate that they’re letting a desire to humiliate each other overcome their interest in resolving the conflict. After they’ve earned some trust with each other and let their guards down, they can be serious – as when Manny honestly assesses that Platform’s work isn’t inherently more glamorous than Mobile’s – and they can use humor more gently, as when Parvati ribs Manny about loving JIRA (“you are an extraterrestrial”)3.

Focus on the problem

It’s easy to let arguments drift in unrelated or overly-personal directions. But if you’re trying to work through a disagreement, keep it focused on the core issue. Two things to avoid: derailing and attacking.

Don’t derail with other issues. Real conflicts are messy, and tend to bring up lots of related, adjacent, and let’s-be-real-this-is-a-non-sequitur things people have been stewing about for a while. That’s okay, and even useful. But, unless the new issue being brought up is way more urgent than the problem you’re trying to focus on, you need to acknowledge it and then park it for a later conversation. This is easier if you’re the one who notices wanting to mention it, but you can also course correct if the other person seems poised to derail. For example, see how Manny respectfully redirects the conversation in the last scene, when Parvati starts thinking about how to fix the communication problems with the Slack channel.

You do need to make sure to follow up on those parked issues later or you’ll lose your credibility. We don’t demonstrate that here, but let’s assume that Manny and Parvati follow up about Slack at some later date.

Don’t attack the person. It’s okay to disagree with someone, but there are limits to what’s appropriate in your criticism of a colleague’s plans or actions. The line generally sits between criticizing things they’ve done and criticizing who they are, or their motivations. You’re trying to disagree with the point, not the person. Parvati fails at this in the first scene by leaping to the accusation, “you can’t handle the level of responsibility of keeping track …” and Manny fails very soon after, using derogatory language to describe Parvati’s actions (“trying to sneak this in as a 20% project”). She is implying that he’s incapable, and he’s implying that she’s deceptive. Neither is okay.

Combine those two points: Resist the urge to bring up unrelated behavior by the other person, even if it’s caused problems for you. Save that for a different conversation.

Offer solutions in good faith

As with “apologize,” this is really two parts: suggesting or offering solutions, and responding to them.

Make genuine suggestions. The work of diagnosing a problem is real, but – if appropriate – so is the work of figuring out how to address it, so it should be shared. Try to build on “say what you need” to describe what specific change would address the problem, even if all you can do is to start sketching out the contours of a solution.

Don’t make insincere, self-abnegating, passive-aggressive offers to demonstrate what a martyr you are. Manny’s frustrated line “Sure, let’s ‘do the right thing’ all the way until we start laying people off.” is counterproductive.

Respond constructively. If you just refuse someone’s offer, especially if your refusal includes contempt or a flat “you’re wrong” criticism, you reduce their motivation for working with you on a solution. Try to accompany your refusal with a counter-proposal, or with a clear explanation of what new things you’ve realized that could point to a new productive direction. If you can build on their idea to make it better, engage with the spirit of “Yes, and” that improv artists do.

These two skills dovetail. Once they calm down, Parvati and Manny can start pulling on the threads of specific concerns and situational assessments. Each one re-examines and modifies their assumptions, and thinks of new possible courses of action that might address their or the other's concerns.

Parvati is nervous about possibly getting contemptuous criticism of a suggestion; because Manny’s skilled at process tools, she is tentative in her “help me with process stuff” request late in the play, because she worries that it sounds too unpolished and Manny will sneer at it. But by then they’ve reached greater trust with each other; she can make a vague suggestion, and Manny can “yes-and” it with the custom dashboard idea.

Further reading

Sources, citations, and inspirations we drew from:

  • Mindfulness meditation, especially to help notice one’s emotions as they’re happening
  • Getting To Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Sumana says: “gave me a framework for doing negotiation, including in those moments I might not have realized were negotiations.”
  • Recurse Center’s social rules such as “No well-actually’s” and “No feigning surprise”. As Sumana wrote a few years ago, “At a recent family reunion, my mom told me I am calmer, less likely to turn a disagreement into an argument. I think one reason I’ve changed is that the attitude of curiosity and valuing diverse subjective experiences at RC helped train me to respond to a disagreement with more ‘could you tell me more about what leads you to that conclusion? Maybe I’m wrong’ and less ‘HULK SMASH’.”
  • The “status” page on an improv wiki that lists specific high- and low-status behaviors, and behaviors that raise or lower someone else’s status.
  • Ned Batchelder’s “Engineers are People”
  • Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Jacob now recommends this book cautiously because of the Myers-Briggs Type stuff and other aspects that haven’t aged well. But it does contain the nice observation that teams without any visible disagreements are actually low-trust teams. High-trust teams actually do disagree often and well.
  • The Problem Solving Leadership workshop Jacob took this class when it was led by Jerry Weinberg, and it was a career-changing experience.
  • Weinberg’s writing more generally, and specifically Becoming A Technical Leader
  • DARN-C (Motivational Interviewing)
  • Suzette Haden Elgin’s writings about “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense”
  • Star Trek: we had to find ways to inhabit characters who aren’t like us, and it helped both of us to think of Trek characters to emulate. Jacob got to Manny through Captain Picard; Sumana got to Parvati through B’Elanna Torres.

  1. The astute reader will note that this fallacy intersects with sexism in particularly pernicious ways, the details of which this margin is insufficient to contain. ↩︎

  2. Which, as we’ll learn later in the script, he probably doesn’t have the EQ to do effectively! ↩︎

  3. Sumana notes: Parvati’s pronouncement “you are an extraterrestrial” is fine by our rules, but she should watch out for the Atlassian Acceptable Use Policy which says they won’t allow “Disparaging Atlassian or our partners, vendors, or affiliates” and does not limit that prohibition to “on our Services”. The astute reader may surmise Sumana’s attitude toward this policy. ↩︎