On Wednesday I wrote about avoiding combat mode in arguments and other difficult conversations. Of course, this can be hard to do in the moment, especially when you are being verbally attacked by someone. One way of deflecting such attacks is to name the behaviour, rather than allow yourself to be drawn into an argument on someone else’s terms. Just having a label to attach to the tactics being used against you can help you stand outside the argument and view it more objectively.
This website on logical fallacies gives names to many of the tactics people use during heated arguments. As the site’s author says, “To be a fallacy, a type of reasoning must be potentially deceptive, it must be likely to fool at least some of the people some of the time.”
There are dozens of them, helpfully categorised and many of which you will have seen in management meetings. Here, though, are the logical fallacies which particularly irritate me.
This is the one that says because I think that the government is cutting spending too far too fast, and that it’s plans for the NHS are bonkers, I must be tax-and-spend leftie who wants to chuck public money around like there’s no tomorrow. Or because I think that the immigration cap is ill-conceived, I must be a wishy-washy tree-hugger who wants to let anyone and everyone into the country, empty all the jails and be nice to violent criminals.
People put you in a box and presume they know what you think based on a single conversation about a specific issue.
This is where someone attributes an argument to the opponent that the opponent hasn’t made and which is so crap that it is easy to knock down. The “deficit denier” charge being bandied about by the government’s supporters is a good example. Of course, no-one is denying the deficit; the deficit is a fact. But that’s the point of the straw man. Attribute silly arguments to your opponents then make your opponents look silly by refuting them. It’s a lazy tactic and the people who use it should be called out.
This is the one where you use data that looks very precise but is actually meaningless. Detailed and seemingly huge numbers are deployed to quell any arguments. Business cases often contain lots of fake precision. The models and spreadsheets look good until you realise that the numbers that went into them were plucked out of thin air.
They go unchallenged because many people are intimidated by numbers. Refuting detailed data can be hard work and you need to know where to look. The fear of looking stupid means that many people don’t even try.
Fortunately for me, I have a colleague who is extremely good at this. When he arrives in a new organisation, he has this knack of going straight to the right stones, lifting them up and exposing the spurious data behind the fake precision. It makes him very effective, if not always very popular!
This is probably the most common of all fallacious types of argument. It’s the one where you attack the person asking the question, rather than dealing with the question itself.
Belligerent politicians and managers do this a lot. Sometimes it can be very brutal. An extreme example of an ad hominem was Duncan Bannatyne’s response last week to a report on a disability discrimination case by XpertHR. The details of the astonishing Twitter exchanges are here.
In most business contexts, though, ad hominem attacks are usually more subtle. Take this example from a friend of mine who had just been drafted onto a project team managing the implementation of a complex IT system. At his first meeting, he asked the project manager what was being done about change management and communications, because it didn’t feature anywhere on the plan. This was the response:
Ah yes, welcome Rob. You’re new to the team aren’t you? How many systems implementations have you worked on? We’ve been doing these projects for years. Take some time out to understand our ways of working. I’ll get someone to help you if you need it.
See what he did there? By belittling the questioner he diverted attention from the question and made sure anyone else would think twice before questioning his authority. My friend soon discovered that this was the way he managed all his meetings.
Oh and, unsurprisingly, nothing had been done about change management and communications.
This is my personal favourite. It’s the ‘Ah yes, but you’re worse’ argument. HR directors get this a lot. Here is a typical exchange:
HR Director: ”I’ve noticed that your department’s absence rate has shot up and, in the last three months, your people have made more calls to the employee helpline than all the other departments put together. I’m also hearing anecdotes about personality clashes and complaints about autocratic behaviour.
Business Unit Director: Well that’s rich coming from you. Your department can’t even pay my people accurately and we lost the HighProfileWonga contract because your lot couldn’t recruit us a decent project manager in time.
OK, I’ve slightly oversimplified the example but it’s the sort of response HR directors often get when trying to constructively challenge defensive line managers. Because of the nature of HR work, there is usually something that can be thrown back in the HRD’s face.
Ad hominem and tu quoque attacks are powerful because they push us into combat mode. The instinctive reaction is to defend ourselves against the charges and, as soon as we do that, the original question gets lost.
But the important thing to remember about all fallacious arguments, and especially ad hominems and tu quoques, is that they are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether the person asking the question is a director or a filing clerk, a saint or a rogue. It also doesn’t matter whether they, too, have done something just as incompetent or negligent in the past. If the question has substance then it deserves an answer regardless of the status or reputation of the person who asked it.
Too often, though, once the questioner goes into defensive mode, the question gets lost. It takes a lot of self-control to ignore the attack and persist with the question. One of my former colleagues, a seasoned HR director, has a stock response to ad hominem or tu quoque attacks, “Now you have finished insulting me, would you mind answering the question.”
It is helpful to be able to identify such behaviours when you are in a neutral or non-executive role. The deployment of these logical fallacies is almost always a sign of a weak position. It is therefore worth probing further. When the person who raised the initial challenge has been thoroughly beaten up, the non-exec can quietly pick up their question and say, “Erm, did we get an answer to that then? What exactly are we doing about change management and communication?”
In my experience, naming and defining such behaviours enables me to recognise them more quickly. I find myself thinking, ‘Ah, there’s a good example of a tu quoque’ or ‘there goes another ad hominem’ and it helps me to renew my focus on the question rather than on defending myself. It can even be useful to name the behaviour. It winds people up but sometimes it’s the only way to take the force out of an attack.
Seeing fallacious arguments for what they are helps to put them in their place. Being able to stick a label on them and name them as fallacies makes non-emotive and constructive challenge seem less daunting.
So, next time you find yourself in an argument or heated debate, look out for these tactics. You will almost certainly find some of them. Like garden birds, once you know what they are called, you’ll find it much easier to spot them.