Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 13;   March 28, 2001: The Slippery Slope That Isn't

The Slippery Slope That Isn't

by

Last updated: July 24, 2019

"If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope" tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks that push our buttons.

Jim felt the team converging on a decision — from his perspective, not a good decision. So he offered, "We're getting lots of complaints about this. I think we should fix it in this release." Beth was unmoved. "OK, customers are complaining, but they complain about everything. If we add these fixes just because of a few complaints, we'll have to add the whole B list, and we'll never ship."

Capitol Hill at night

The U.S. Capitol at night. "Slippery slope" arguments are a favorite tactic of politicians the world over.

Jim had been "slippery-sloped." To use the rhetorical trick called the slippery slope, you exaggerate your opponent's argument and claim that conceding your opponent's point means accepting the exaggerated form as well. You usually prevail because the exaggerated form is scary — so scary that observers rarely notice that you haven't justified the exaggerated form.

Nobody noticed that Beth hadn't justified her claim that they would have to add the entire B list. She glided over it, nobody questioned her, and Jim's proposal was rejected.

When a problem-solving team is slippery-sloped, it's misled, and it risks failing to find a solution. It mistakenly concludes that accepting one point requires that it accept that point's exaggerated form, and so it rejects the original point. What can you do to reduce your team's vulnerability to this trick?

First, educate people in advance. Don't introduce the slippery-slope concept during a slippery-slope incident. A team in the midst of heated debate doesn't want to take time out to learn rhetorical techniques. Moreover, someone will have just used the tactic, and your attempt to educate might look like a personal attack. Instead, at a meeting when no serious debate is expected, explain the slippery-slope tactic, and the damage it does. For a little humor, use examples from Meet the Press or the Congressional Record.

Slippery-sloping
works because
the exaggerated claim
is so scary
Once everyone knows about the tactic, it's much less effective, and it's less likely to be used. If it does appear, call time out and let people know what you feel you saw. Have an open discussion, and if all agree that it really was a slippery-slope tactic, you can investigate the implicit connection between the original claim and its exaggerated form. The connection might be real, and if you all agree that it is, then you can resume the debate. Otherwise, you can go back to the unextended form and start to build on that as a solution. This works best if the person who calls time out is an observer of the debate, rather than the one who was slippery-sloped.

Once everyone understands that slippery-sloping is taboo, they'll wonder "If slippery-sloping is taboo now, won't all my sneaky tactics be taboo soon?" And of course, it's true. You'll be on the slippery slope toward treating each other with dignity and respect — not a bad slope to be on. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Shape of the Table  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

For far more than you ever wanted to know about slippery-slope argumentation, see M.J. Rizzo, "The Camel's Nose Is in the Tent: Rules, Theories, and Slippery Slopes."

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

Roasted chestnuts. Can you smell their aroma?Making Memories to Cherish
We all have cherished memories — lovely moments we can replay whenever we want to feel happy. How would you like to have a lot more of them?
The John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County, AlabamaFirst Aid for Wounded Conversations
Groups that meet regularly sometimes develop patterns of tense conversations that become obstacles to forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.
RaspberriesHuman Limitations and Meeting Agendas
Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings more productive and save us from ourselves.
A visual illusionScope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
The U.S. and Russian delegations meet to negotiate the New Start TreatyFace-Off Negotiations
In difficult face-to-face negotiations — or any face-to-face negotiations — seating arrangements do matter. Here's an exploration of one common seating pattern.

See also Emotions at Work, Effective Communication at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A railroad switchComing April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
Child's toys known as Chinese finger trapsAnd on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Here are some dates for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!