Written by: David W. Johnson
Using Disagreement for Improvement
David W. Johnson, the author of Constructive Controversy, offers helpful insight on how to conflict can give birth to new insights, effective decisions, and creative breakthroughs.
As a young professor I became amazed about how many positive benefits result from disagreements, arguing, dissent, advocacy for alternative points of view, and other forms of conflict over ideas, information, conclusions, theories, and opinions. It seemed so clear then and now that more reasoned and thoughtful decisions result from groups in which different members advocate different courses of action and challenge each other’s reasoning. I labelled such conflicts as controversies and went to work developing a theory of constructive controversy, conducting a series of research studies to confirm the theory, and organizing what was known about such conflicts and their impact on a wide range of outcomes. This book summarizes the results of forty-five years of work on constructive controversy by myself, my colleagues, and my students.
Controversies are everywhere. Look around you and you will see people trying to decide whether to do one thing or another, two people trying to agree on how to spend an evening, two groups trying to decide how to coordinate their actions, your country trying to decide who will be the next President, and various countries trying to decide whether to interact peacefully or go to war. At every level of human experience, disagreements, dissenting views, and arguments take place. In order to understand how to utilize such conflicts to make your life more interesting, productive, creative, and fun, you need to understand the nature of constructive controversy, how it works, and the procedures you use to apply it in various situations.
In this book, therefore, the nature of controversy is explained, historical and contemporary examples of controversies are given, the theory of controversy is explained, the process by which it works is covered, the resulting outcomes (verified by research) are presented, and the specific application of the theory and research to five important areas is described. The areas are making effective decisions, teaching effectively, promoting creativity and innovation, engaging in political discourse in a democracy, and building and maintaining peace among countries. Practical procedures for each of these issues are presented. Constructively managed conflict is not only essential for these areas, but for almost all aspects of human interaction and endeavors.
There are so many positive outcomes of constructive controversy that even a book is not enough space to list them all. But it is clear that when you are deciding what to do, having someone disagree with you and challenge your reasoning is extremely helpful. When you want to have creative insights, having someone who will point out all the flaws in your reasoning and conclusions is extremely helpful. Developing relationships in which you can argue and present dissenting views, and be a devil’s advocate, has multiple benefits and may be essential for your productivity and happiness.
If these statements seem strange or unreasonable, read the book. The theory and research will convince you. The chapters on applications will provide guidance for enriching your life and the procedures will provide a framework for developing your skills in creating and utilizing the power of creative controversy.