Sunday, March 03, 2024

Should you let someone know you plan to challenge their ideas?

Do you owe it to someone to tell them when you plan to confront their comments in public?

The first byline I ever had was published on Thursday, March 2, 1972, in The Times-Bulletin, the weekly newspaper of Boonton, New Jersey. I was a 15-year-old high-school student. I got the assignment because weeks earlier I had stopped by the newspaper’s offices and asked if they had any jobs. They didn’t, but I got a phone call asking me if I would be able to cover a local education board meeting for which they’d pay me $5 if it was published.

The piece was published, but when I went to pick up my check, I also received the stern advice that if I wanted to continue stringing for the newspaper, I had best learn to type better and not turn in copy with so many cross-outs and type overs. My writing career lasted longer than The Times-Bulletin, which ceased publication in 1979, about five years after I’d left town.

The second half of that first article was essentially a list of all the votes and committee appointments and similar housekeeping done by the board. But the first half of the article was reflected in the headline for the piece: “Athletics Criticism Countered.”

Apparently, at the previous board of education meeting, a resident had attended and bemoaned the inadequacy of the athletic programs offered at the local grade schools. The resident had not been on the agenda and hadn’t given anyone in the athletic department a heads up that he would be making his statement. “I came down here as an individual because it bothered me to see what was going on,” the resident said.

At the meeting I covered, Glenn Moore, who taught physical education to most every student who went through the Boonton public schools over a 32-year period beginning in the 1960s, had been scheduled to make a report about the status of the athletic program. But because the discontented resident had made his comments at the prior meeting, Moore decided he had to address them. An “awful lot of people called me up and said they thought it was unjust,” Moore said.

Moore had a choice. He could have simply dismissed the disappointed resident’s comments and got on with his report, or he could have ignored the topic altogether. Moore, however, chose to invite the resident to hear his report at the meeting and to ask any questions that might help him understand the status of the programs better.

Moore’s choice always stuck with me. It might have been easier to ignore that resident’s comments and to avoid making sure he was in the room when you planned to counter his argument. But it showed integrity and Moore did the right thing by letting the resident know ahead of time that he disagreed with his assessment, that he planned to detail specifics that ran counter to his complaints, and that he hoped to do it face to face so the resident could ask any questions he might still have.

No argument broke out. Questions were asked and answered. The board of education struggled as many local school boards do with funding the best athletics program it could, and Moore continued to be a beloved member of the community until his death at 89 in 2013.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin



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