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:
- The Slippery Slope That Isn't
- "If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope"
tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks
that push our buttons.
- Making Memories to Cherish
- We all have cherished memories — lovely moments we can replay whenever we want to feel happy.
How would you like to have a lot more of them?
- Managing Hindsight Bias Risk
- Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after
outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness
of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.
- Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
- Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some
organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes
can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
- Face-Off Negotiations
- In difficult face-to-face negotiations — or any face-to-face negotiations — seating arrangements
do matter. Here's an exploration of one common seating pattern.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
- Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
- And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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