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How To Handle Strawman Arguments In The Workplace

From time to time we all have heated debates with our work colleagues. Some of those debates will boil over into misunderstandings and out-and-out arguments. Communications get crossed. Things get said. Points get lost. Sometimes you’ll find yourself trying to counter a strawman argument and whether it’s intentional or otherwise, it’s best to understand how to recognise these arguments so you can learn how to deal with them.

A strawman argument is a type of argument style where the discussion becomes distorted so the real subject of the argument is not addressed or refuted but is instead replaced with a false subject.

Because the person who employs a strawman argument is no longer attacking the stance of the opposing person, they are said to be attacking a straw man. Generally, the strawman is a distorted version of the stance of the opposing person, which they don’t necessarily support.

This style of argumentation is often seen in politics but can be seen around the board table and in everyday relationships. Whilst it can be employed intentionally to oppose someone, more often than not it’s unintentional.

For example, I might say something like: “We need to get better data for our sales team to call” a person using a strawman argument might then say “that’s a terrible idea, why don’t we just increase the sales team’s commission and have done with it.”

Strawman tactics are often used in sales, negotiations and politics for several reasons, including:

  • To influence
  • To win an argument
  • As a diversion
  • To extract an emotional response
  • As a delaying tactic

It’s so easy to make a strawman argument that when you’re running a business or dealing with other people in a business environment it’s important to be able to understand how they work and have strategies in place to cope with them.

I am putting this down because I recently realised a colleague regularly uses strawman arguments. I don’t think they are used intentionally, but I think it is valuable to think about how to handle this style of argument and understand why they are being used.

How The Strawman Argument Works

The strawman argument style – or the Strawman Fallacy to give it its proper name – works as follows:

  • Person A asserts Proposition X.
  • Person B argues against a superficially similar Proposition Y as if an argument against Y were an argument against X.

Basically, Person B is the creator of the strawman argument by creating Proposition Y, which is a distorted version of Person A’s Proposition X. This in turn makes it easier to argue against the opponent’s stance and Person B is attacking a stance that is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand.

When a person intentionally creates a strawman – and you see this most frequently with politicians – the strawman argument works more like this:

  • Person A asserts Proposition X.
  • Person B presents Proposition Y whilst pretending there’s no difference between Proposition X and Proposition Y.
  • Person B attacks (often through ridicule) Proposition Y and acts as if this invalidates Proposition X.

Understanding Strawman Arguments

In this example, the director distorts the argument for a commission by conflating it as a pay rise for everyone:

Sales Manager: This product has been much more difficult for my team to sell than we expected, so I think we should give some commission to those guys who have actually managed to make a sale.

Director: If we give everyone a £200 pay rise for no reason, the sales team won’t bother working hard in the future.

There are three ways in which the Director uses a strawman argument:

  1. The Director argues against giving everyone a pay rise, whilst the Sales Manager was only talking about people who had managed to make a sale.
  2. The Director argues against giving a pay rise of £200, when the Sales Manager hadn’t suggested what the commission should be.
  3. The Director argues against giving a pay rise for no reason, whilst the Sales Manager had suggested paying commission because the product had been harder to sell than anticipated.

The Director’s strawman argument means that they can more easily oppose the position of the Sales Manager. Also, bear in mind what the Director says doesn’t have to be true, because, in fact, it could be motivating to give everyone a £200 pay rise. The point is, it’s irrelevant to the argument being used by the Sales Manager.

Recognising The Types Of Strawman Arguments

The usual ways people use a strawman argument include:

  • Oversimplifying, generalizing, or exaggerating the other person’s position.
  • Focusing on only a few specific aspects of the other person’s argument.
  • Quoting parts of the other person’s argument out of context.
  • Fabricating claims that the other person hasn’t made.
  • Using extreme opinions, which are sometimes used in order to support the other person’s position, but which the other person didn’t actually use.

We all use strawman arguments from time to time. Sometimes we do it in everyday conversation without even realising it. Other times, we misunderstand or misremember something and construct an argument around our perception of what has been said. And then there’s the dark side, where someone who willfully implements strawman and those who really know how to use this tactic.

In most corporate settings you’re probably going to find the person using strawman arguments is doing so unintentionally. You may even find your own personal communication style is contributing towards the distortion.

Spotting a strawman argument centres around the realisation that the other person’s argument mismatches the stance you are taking. In practice, strawman arguments can be difficult to notice when you’re busy trying to counter the argument, if you’re not familiar with this kind of tactic or if you’re unsure whether you’re being strawmanned or not.

How To Counter A Strawman Argument

The first thing you should do to deal with a strawman argument is to reduce the likelihood of it taking place before it happens. And that means being very clear and creating as few opportunities for misinterpretation as possible.

If I was one of the Mister Men, I’d be somewhere between Mr Waffle, Mr Contradictory and Mr Did-He-Really-Just-Say-That. I’m not the best public speaker and I’m not the best at getting things out of my head and into words that really represent what I’m thinking or perhaps more accurately what I’m feeling.

It’s also handy to be able to plan what you’re going to say because it will help you remember the argument you’ve made and the words you’ve used. Hands up, when I talk on the fly, I have very little specific knowledge of what I’ve just said. But being ready and remembering what you’ve said can help you to correct the person you’re speaking with if they distort your argument.

Whilst being clear, concise and planning your arguments is a good tactic to reduce the amount of strawman fallacy from entering your conversations, you can’t completely prevent it.

There are three ways to deal with a strawman argument:

  1. Ignore The Strawman – many people who recognise a strawman is being actively used against them will choose to ignore the strawman and continue to advance their own stance. This can be difficult in the workplace, especially if you are in a situation where there is a difference in the power relationships between two members of a business. After all, you can’t ignore your boss’ argument and just carry on making your own argument.
  2. Accept The Strawman – in certain situations, you might want to choose to accept the premise of the strawman argument and deal with it before you bring it back to your original position. This is most useful when you’re working with a co-worker who clearly has a separate, related point to make, that’s irrelevant to the stance you’re taking but which will overshadow your stance unless it’s dealt with.
  3. Point Out The Strawman – the most logical way to deal with a strawman is to explain why the other person’s argument is fallacious and how it distorts your original stance. By pointing it out you may be able to help them see if they’ve made a mistake, although in some situations it’s likely you’ll end up with the other person becoming more entrenched in their argument. This can result in an argument getting more heated before it is resolved. Again, you’ve got to understand who you’re discussing things with, what their motivations are and what their reactions are to being challenged.

Understanding The Unintentional Use Of Strawman Arguments

In the workplace – and in life in general – the most commonly used forms of strawman arguments are unintentional. Wherever possible you should approach the use of a strawman argument with the principle of charity. Generally, people misunderstand, misinterpret or misremember an argument and when they come back with a strawman argument they aren’t trying to actively distort it.

Our natural reaction to someone misremembering or misrepresenting something we say is to say: “I didn’t say that” to which the other person is likely to say “yes you did.” Rather, it’s better to ask them to justify their position because it gives them time to consider their argument further and provides an opportunity for them to realise they’ve made a mistake in their reasoning.

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