Book review: “Why Are We Yelling?”

Buster Benson, entrepreneur and former product leader, has written “Why Are We Yelling?”. In this book, he covers ‘the art of productive disagreement’. Most of us are weary of disagreement, so Benson’s claim that disagreement can be productive is intriguing. The book begins with some of the common misconceptions with respect to disagreement:

  • Arguments are bad — They aren’t bad, but they can’t be unproductive. We aren’t taught how to argue productively.
  • Arguments change minds — We can really change only two things: our own minds and our own behaviour.
  • Arguments end — Arguments have deep roots and will always find a way to grow back again.

Benson then flips these misconceptions to make the case for the “gift of disagreement”:

  • Truth 1: Arguments aren’t bad — They’re signposts to issues that need our attention.
  • Truth 2: Arguments aren’t about changing minds — They are about bringing minds together.
  • Truth 3: Arguments don’t end — They have deep roots and will pop back up again and again, asking us to engage with them.

I thought it was refreshing to read how Benson starts dissecting product disagreement by zooming in on anxiety. He explains how anxiety sparks “when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way” and offers ways to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement (see Fig. 1 below).

There are number of internal voices that come to life in the case of a disagreement. Benson cites the three main ones and explains how these tend to be culturally engrained:

  • The voice of power — This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Take it or leave it” or “My way or the highway”. The voice of power isn the ultimate conflict-resolution strategy, because you can’t argue with sheer force. Benson states that this what power does — it forcibly closes down arguments and ends conflict in your favour, which is an undeniable evolutionary advantage.
  • The voice of reason — This is the internal voice which will tell you things such as “Why?” or “That doesn’t add up”. The voice of reason is all about using reasons to shut down a debate. Benson argues that the voice of reason works best in situations where you have disagreements with people who share respect for the same higher authority or are part of the same group or organisation that your reasons draw from.
  • The voice of avoidance — This is the internal voice which tells you things such as “I would prefer not to” or “Leave me out of it”. Benson describes how “conflict avoiders have identified flaws in the voices of power and reason and so have chosen to address conflicts by simply refusing to participate in them in the first place.”

Core to the book is the fourth voice that Benson introduces: the voice of possibility. The voice of possibility seeks to make conflict productive. This voice resonates in questions like:

  • What are we missing?
  • What else is possible?
  • What else can we do with what we have?
  • Who else can we bring into the conversation to give us a new perspective?

Benson makes the point that the voice of possibility encourages us very explicitly not to do what the other three voices — power, reason and avoidance — have made habitual in us, which is to find a way to uproot and kill the conflict. We need to, Benson argues, develop ‘honest bias’. He also offers a set of useful guidelines with respect to product disagreement:

Main learning point: ‘Why We Are Yelling?’ successfully demystifies the common notion that disagreement needs to be painful and unproductive. In this book, Buster Benson describes the rationale behind this notion — through three, culturally engrained voices — and introduces a powerful new voice; the voice of possibility.

Fig. 1 — How to stop anxiety from derailing your disagreement — Taken from: Buster Benson — Why Are We Yelling?, pp. 54–55:

Product at ASOS, author of "My Product Management Toolkit", family, boxing and founder of @hiphoplistings and blogging via http://t.co/uGr5nRye

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store