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:
- Email Happens
- Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its
limitations? How can we use email safely?
- When Naming Hurts
- One of our great strengths as Humans is our ability to name things. Naming empowers us by helping us
think about and communicate complex ideas. But naming has a dark side, too. We use naming to oversimplify,
to denigrate, to disempower, and even to dehumanize. When we abuse this tool, we hurt our companies,
our colleagues, and ourselves.
- Staying in Abilene
- A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort
that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens
when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Unanswerable Questions
- Some questions are beyond our power to answer, but many of us try anyway. What are some of these unanswerable
questions and how can we respond?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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