Natalie interrupted Geoff. "I don't think that's a realistic approach at all. Even if we had the budget, we don't have time to hire thirty people."
Geoff was now on defense. "I never suggested that — I said that to make the scheduled date would require thirty more people. Hiring is probably the worst way to get there."
Playing defense, Geoff's task is not only to make his original point, but also to remove the distortions that Natalie has introduced into the debate by using a technique called the Straw Man fallacy.
To use Straw Man, you state your partner's position in a form that's easy to refute. Then you refute your restatement of it, often by showing that it has unacceptable implications.
Most of us use Straw Man from time to time. It's so common that we rarely notice it. Here are some indicators that your partner may have used Straw Man.
- A sense of frustration
- Feelings of frustration during debate can arise from many possible sources, but check for Straw Man first.
- Someone characterizes your position
- Your partner characterizes your position, and you have little or no opportunity to critique the characterization before the process of drawing extremely undesirable inferences has begun.
- Absolute language
- The Straw Man fallacy
is so common that
we rarely notice it
- In the characterization of your position, nuances and qualifications are removed, and an absolutist version of your position emerges. Words like every, nobody, all, none, always, never, forever, 100%, completely, and so on are good indicators.
- I never said…
- If you feel the need to clarify, or to deny that you said something, there's a good chance that your partner has used Straw Man.
If the user of Straw Man prevails, success might be based not on the strength of the argument, but on a distorted premise. And anything constructed on that basis is more likely to be wrong. To manage this risk, be prepared to deal with the Straw Man fallacy when it appears.
- Make sure that everyone understands the Straw Man fallacy, how it works, and what it costs.
- Notice characterizations
- When you notice that someone's position is being characterized, speak up. Before the implications begin to flow, ask for discussion of the characterization, and gain agreement that it's fair and complete.
When we use Straw Man in the decision-making context, we typically intend to eliminate something from the list of candidates so that the group will choose one of the other options. This is a setup for tragedy. If the ploy works, we will have chosen that option not by comparing it to the options we do have, but to distortions of them. And we will have built our decision on a foundation of straw. Top Next Issue
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 more on the Straw Man fallacy, see D. Walton, "The Straw Man Fallacy," in Logic and Argumentation, J. van Bentham, et. al., ed. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1996. Available at io.uwinnipeg.ca/~walton/96straw.pdf.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- The Loopy Things We Do at Work
- At the end of the day, your skill at finding humor inside the dull and ordinary can make the difference
between going home exhausted and going home in a strait jacket. Adopting a twisted view of the goings-on
might just help keep you untwisted.
- Ethical Influence: II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can
we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- Favors, Payback, and Thoughtlessness
- Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you
say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
- Blind Agendas
- Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants
can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
- Inappropriate Levels of Regard
- The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they
do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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