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

For more on ad hominem attacks, see "Some Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks," Point Lookout for November 14, 2012.

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenMGGIOpteWGBQJhNwner@ChacdNEbIxPyvFHcSBRjoCanyon.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:

A wrecked boatShould I Keep Bailing or Start Plugging the Leaks?
When we're flooded with problems, and the rowboat is taking on water, we tend to bail with buckets, rather than take time out to plug the leaks. Here are some tips for dealing with floods of problems.
An appealing plate of pasta (not what I ate that evening)If Only I Had Known: II
Ever had one of those forehead-slapping moments when someone explained something, or you suddenly realized something? They usually involve some idea or insight that would have saved you much pain, trouble, and heartache, if only you had known.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnnoyance to Asset
Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South PoleOne Cost of Split Assignments
Sometimes management practices have unintended consequences. To reduce costs, we keep staff ranks thin, but that leads to split assignments for those with rare skills. Here's one way split assignments can lead to higher costs.
Benjamin Franklin portrait by Joseph Siffred DuplessisWacky Words of Wisdom: IV
Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection.

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

Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatComing June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
A VoiceStation 500 speakerphone by PolycomAnd on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenWEeoQNBWwNbEWCSxner@ChacOtiKKThGuxQeaPJGoCanyon.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 Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date 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 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.