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

Mudfights

by

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenoxEtkUNmbYqbbfInner@ChacwIjkTLYXYJbLECdzoCanyon.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 Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Sun doing a loop-de-loopA Message Is Only a Message
When we receive messages of disapproval, we sometimes feel bad. And when we do, it can help to remember that we have the freedom to decide whether or not to accept the messages we receive.
Jack-in-the-boxNo Surprises
If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.
Statue of Hermes with modern headTeamwork Myths: Formation
Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
A stretch of the Amazon rain forest showing storm damageUnnecessary Boring Work: II
Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.
Navy vs. Marine Corps tug of war in Vera Cruz, Mexico ca. 1910-1915Holding Back: I
When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Communication at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Jolly RogerComing August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenJUngdGzHmtuzIJKnner@ChacYbkElmxDHmSpWaJnoCanyon.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

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 Follow me at Google+ or share a post 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!
More articles about person-to-person communication!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
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
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.