A rhetorical fallacy is an error in reasoning. There are dozens of different kinds of fallacies, and "begging the question" is among the most common. We beg the question when we use one unproven assertion to "prove" another. For example:
Boss: "Jean, Mark says you're bullying him. I want it stopped."
Jean: "I certainly am not bullying anyone."
Boss: "Then why does Mark say so? Stop it, or I'll have to take action."
Here, Boss uses an unproven assertion that Mark would complain only if Jean were actually bullying him.
When the unproven assertion underlies a long chain of assertions, unwinding the fallacy is like opening a nested set of Russian matryushka dolls. We find assertion within assertion, but never the solid proof we seek.
Although inept or devious debaters are the usual perpetrators, we do find rhetorical fallacies elsewhere. Our innermost thoughts can contain chains of unreason using rhetorical fallacies, and we can find them embedded in organizational policy and procedure, where they have enormous impact. Here's an example:
Boss: You're unsuitable for customer contact, so I reassigned you to maintenance of the mud pit.
Jean: In what way am I unsuitable?
Boss: Well, for one thing, you're covered with mud.
Our innermost thoughts
can contain chains
of unreason that
use rhetorical fallaciesThis is a form of begging the question that's sometimes called circular reasoning. In circular reasoning, the assertion chain loops back on itself. In this example, the circularity lies not in the reasoning, but in the sequence of events. It's laughably obvious, because the chain is so short, but in realistic situations, the chain can be so long that the circularity escapes our notice.
If the Boss above wants to beg the question without circularity, he or she might try this:
Boss: Because you question everything — you're even questioning me right now.
Since Boss has demonstrated neither that Jean questions "everything," nor that questioning implies unsuitability for customer contact, both propositions are unproven.
Here are some tips for dealing with those who beg the question.
- Think it through
- Does your partner's reasoning use unproven assertions? How many? Which are most important?
- Seek justification
- If the floor is open for discussion, ask your partner to justify the most important unproven assertions.
- Avoid citing your partner for begging the question
- Many of us have heard the term "begging the question," but we aren't sure what it means. Confronting people who are unsure might embarrass them, which can have explosive results.
- Confronting power can be risky
- When people with power beg the question, they usually know what they're doing. Confronting people who intend to sneak one past you probably won't work.
- Limit inquiry
- If your partner responds to your inquiry by begging the question yet again, back off. Further progress is unlikely.
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!
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- When You Make a Mistake
- We've all made mistakes, and we'll continue to do so for as long as we live. Making mistakes is part
of being human. Still, we're often troubled by our mistakes, even when we remember that many mistakes
turn out to be great gifts. Why do we have such a hard time acknowledging mistakes?
- Manipulated Commitments
- Manipulated or coerced commitment looks pretty good on paper, but it might not lead to dedicated action.
When the truth is finally revealed, trouble can be unavoidable.
- Believe It or Else
- When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future
action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
- The Problem of Work Life Balance
- When we consider the problem of work life balance, we're at a disadvantage from the start. The term
itself is part of the problem.
- Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality
- In virtual teams, toxic conflict sometimes seems to erupt spontaneously. People who function effectively
in co-located teams can find themselves repeatedly embroiled in conflicts that seem to lack specific
causes. What triggers toxic conflict in virtual teams?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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