Conflict around ideas is a normal, healthy, and necessary part of organizational life. As I’ve said before, if your team isn’t arguing, something’s wrong.
At the same time, we know that not all arguments are created equal. Or maybe it’s that all arguments are created equal, but some arguments are more equal than others. (hat tip to you, Mr. Orwell)
We’ve all been in those moments though–the ones where a teammate or colleague or friend is saying something that just doesn’t seem quite right. They’re making their case, and their argument irritates you for some reason, but you can’t really put your finger on why. Sometimes it’s funny and lighthearted. Other times it’s witty banter.
But perhaps it’s worse than that. You might often find yourself feeling like a particular teammate or boss uses their personality or position to dominate conversations and “convince” people he or she is right. It’s frustrating because you can’t figure out which is worse: letting that person get their way, or actually having to interact with that person.
One thing you might find helpful is to think a little bit about how those folks seem to have their way in those important discussions. You’ll most likely feel more confident engaging in those discussions if you’re able to pick up what methods they’re knowingly or unknowingly employing to “win” those arguments.
Any of these sound familiar?
1. Ad hominem statements.
“Well, you know how she’s not as progressive as I am, so she’s obviously wrong about [insert thing that she may or may not be wrong about].”
See what happened there? The focus of the conversation has subtly shifted toward negative commentary on a person rather than the actually validity of that person’s idea. In this example, her being or not being progressive probably has no bearing on the veracity of her statement about a thing.
2. Argument overdose (argumentum verbosium).
They dive so deep or use so much jargon or talk so much that there’s really no way to address all the arguments they’re making, and in the absence of strong arguments against the seventeen different points they made, everyone else just sort of shrugs their shoulders and moves on.
So what do you do? How about: “Can you walk me through that again in layman’s terms? I want to be sure I really understand what you’re saying.” Or, “Let’s tackle those ideas one at a time.”
3. Shotgun argumentation.
Similar to the argument overdose above, they list out a scattered-but-somehow impressive-sounding list of reasons they’re right. The problem is that they list so many of them without giving anyone a chance to respond. By the time they’ve finished their list, you can’t really respond to all of them.
4. Appeal to probability.
They take something for granted and expect others to do the same because it would probably be the case.
5. Argument from ignorance.
This is when that guy in your meeting says something like, “Well tell me what specifically is wrong with my idea? Oh? You can’t? Then maybe it’s not so wrong after all.” It’s the assumption that a statement or proposition is true (or false) because it hasn’t or can’t be proven otherwise.
A more informal definition would be the arguer is an ignoramus. (See what I did there? An argument from ignorance? Never mind. I’m tired.)
6. The full-of-shift argument.
Instead of making a reasoned and coherent case for an idea or course of action, they shift the responsibility to you to find something wrong with their idea or course of action. They don’t have to prove the validity of their idea; you have to prove it’s invalid. Sometimes their shifting of the burden of proof to you is accidental. Sometimes it’s intentional because they’re full of shift.
7. False dilemma.
You’re given two options, and they’re presented as if they’re the only two options in existence. Here’s what it might sound like: “Look, you’re either for me or you’re against me.”
Really? What is this–third grade? And why is this suddenly about you? Let me guess. Next you’re going to ask if I’ve quit beating my wife.
8. Alluding to the stick.
“If you do (this or that), something bad will happen to you.” It’s the veiled or not-so-veiled threat that if you don’t do this thing that they want you to do, something rather undesirable is going to occur.
9. Straw man.
This one probably drives you bonkers during political debates just like it drives you bonkers when it happens to you during a discussion at work. For example…
Straw Artist: Oh, so you just think you’re better than everyone else and should be able to tell us the second any of us does anything wrong? No, thank you. No one wants that.
It’s misrepresenting people’s arguments or ideas and then criticizing those misrepresentations instead of their actual ideas. You paint someone’s idea in such a silly light that it seems ridiculous and then point out that it looks ridiculous. Well of course it does when you say it that way.
Look–the point of spelling all of these out isn’t so you’ll stand up in your next meeting, point at someone, and proclaim to the room that they’re full of shift. If you do that, you will find yourself in one of those awkward moments where you immediately regret what you did in the preceding moments.
The reason it’s good to understand this stuff is so that you can be better at engaging in good conversation around ideas that are important to your team and organization, and so that you can be more aware of your own conversational tactics, whether they’re conscious or subconscious ones.