Luckily, Greta had a mouthful of salad and couldn't respond immediately to Walt's "You argued for the opposite position on Marigold." If she could have responded, she realized, she would have fallen into Walt's trap. While he continued on, she finished chewing, and then carefully set down her fork. Then she let him have it.
"Whether I took a different position on Marigold doesn't matter. The question now is: should we use Houston for Metronome, or should we do the work here? I admit that I'm an imperfect human being, as I'm sure you would admit that you are too, but the question is: can Houston do the job?"
Silence around the table. Walt seemed a little stunned. Greta picked up her fork and resumed work on her salad.
Walt has just paid the price for using a type of rhetorical fallacy known as an ad hominem attack. It's powerful and it can lead a group into a wilderness of confusion and sloppy thinking, where bad decisions are born.
Many of us are unprepared for ad hominem attacks. Even if we are prepared, in the heat of debate we can forget what we know. There are three common forms of the ad hominem fallacy.
- Ad hominem abusive
- This is a The ad hominem attack
is powerful, and it can
lead to sloppy thinking
and bad decisionsdirect attack on your humanity. The logic: You're a rotten person; therefore your assertion is false. Example: The last project you managed was 30% over budget, so I don't believe your projections on this one.
- Ad hominem tu quoque
- The tu quoque form tries to demonstrate that you're inconsistent or hypocritical. The logic: You once said something different; therefore you aren't credible; therefore your assertion is false. Walt tried this one on Greta.
- Circumstantial ad hominem
- The circumstantial form is an attack on your associations — your job, your heritage, or other affiliations. The logic: You have rotten friends; therefore your assertion is false. Example: Since you're a hardware engineer, your suggestion that we fix this in the software is wrong.
What can you do about an ad hominem?
- Don't defend yourself or respond in kind
- If you defend yourself or respond in kind you'll only help your partner take the discussion off point. Instead, get back to the issues. Greta did it masterfully.
- If you're a spectator, identify it
- As a spectator identify the ad hominem to the group — you have more credibility than the target does, because you aren't directly under attack. And you have a right to demand that the debaters stick to the issues.
- If you notice yourself doing it, stop
- Better debates start with you. If you slip up, apologize to your partner. If not immediately, then later, privately.
During a debate, identifying an ad hominem attack against yourself is risky. Instead, get back to the issues — pointing out your partner's fallacious tactics could be an ad hominem attack in itself. 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 ad hominem attacks, see "Some Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks," Point Lookout for November 14, 2012.
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenuAyGAImOuEMNwhTIner@ChacRjabpeBwnAEYQdCPoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- How We Avoid Making Decisions
- When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways
to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's
a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: I
- Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting
chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little
catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
- Risk Management Risk: II
- Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. Here are some
guidelines for reducing risk management risk arising from risk interactions and change.
- When It's Just Not Your Job
- Has your job become frustrating because the organization has lost its way? Is circumventing the craziness
making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: II
- When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized
experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups
use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
- And on December 26: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
- Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Available here and by RSS on December 26.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenPIEuMlSCPQhFDqPiner@ChacVYxQzpPIwgYvGevGoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.
- 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.