Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 15;   April 14, 2004:

Mudfights

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
Dogs Fighting in a Wooded Clearing, by Frans Snyders

Dogs Fighting in a Wooded Clearing, by Frans Snyders (1579-1657). If a group becomes tolerant of interpersonal attacks, people begin to anticipate them. An increasing fraction of total effort is devoted to plotting and defending against personal attacks. The overall feel of such a meeting is not unlike the scene in this painting. Oil on canvas, circa 1645. Photo available at WikiMedia.

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 decisions
direct 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Scheduling as Risk Management  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 more on ad hominem attacks, see "Some Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks," Point Lookout for November 14, 2012.

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