Rhetoric tips for difficult discussions

Change projects frequently provoke resistance, and the criticism expressed is not always fair and objective. This is how you can react when discussion partners present inappropriate arguments.

In companies, there are many occasions for controversy. Whether it’s about the big strategy or a transformation in a single department: In management circles, during Q&As with employees or at the round-table with the Works Council, managers should deal with criticism constructively and avoid not to be taken down the garden path. Those who are familiar with typical patterns of argumentation can more easily refute criticism. We present seven rhetorical tactics which are often used in discussions – consciously or based on gut feelings. How you should handle them depends on the situation. Sometimes the best way is to ignore them, sometimes you should give an appropriate reply.

1. Emotional appeal

Appealing to feelings is a wise move because emotions strongly determine whether or not people support change. Emotional arguments can be inappropriate though if they are to prevent rational thinking. This is true, for example, when someone refers to tradition: “So far, we have always done well with our products / processes / structures.” Whoever expresses himself in this sense wants to take advantage of human laziness or the fear of novelty. In order to support this argument the person may also refer to anecdotes, such as: “Our competitor X wanted to introduce the same IT system in 2018, but in the meantime he has backed down.”

How can you react?

  • Don’t attack your counterpart. For example, don’t accuse him or her of laziness.
  • Try to refute negative anecdotes: Was the competitor’s pulling back really due to the IT system or rather to the merger with another company, whose system is now being taken over? Add your own positive examples. It is very helpful to research suitable case studies and press reports in advance.
  • Repeat rational arguments and the emotional messages of your change story.

2. Doomsaying or landslide argument

This tactic also triggers emotional reflexes. It supposes that a projected change will cause an avalanche. Let’s assume that a company wants to introduce a more flexible working model. Among other things, this means more remote working days and an open office space without personal desks. Pessimists argue: “If employees are rarely present the workload will become less visible. They will be given more tasks and have to work unpaid overtime at home. The company will save money but the employees will have to pay the bill.”

How can you react?

  • Explain how you will prevent possible negative consequences.
  • Reply naming the positive consequences of your plans – even if you have already presented them several times. Repeat your messages like a “broken record”.
  • Be open to criticism: If the bad feelings hit a sore spot in your concept, promise to develop a solution.

3. Straw man tactics

People often talk at cross purposes. However, some misunderstandings are intentional. For example: A company’s top management discusses a women’s quota. An opponent argues that female-dominated management teams would disadvantage male aspirants. This pattern is easy to see through – there was no mention of female dominance. The critic is fighting against a “straw man”, i.e. a position that was not taken at all, but simply offers more scope for attack.

How can you react?

  • Take action immediately and address the misunderstanding.
  • Be as diplomatic as possible. If your discussion partner acts very offensive, you can certainly point put to the tactics: “You deliberately refer to a scenario that is not up for discussion here.”

4. Defamation of criticism

As we know, a discussion is not only about the matter in hand but also about the authority of a person. In order to claim a dominant position, some speakers denigrate their critics from the outset, with statements like: “Anyone who has an idea of our industry will agree …” Whoever dares to contradict the following argument would disqualify himself – at least that is suggested here.

How can you react?

  • If you don’t believe the argument but have no facts to refute it: Ask the speaker to give concrete reasons for his or her position (“What makes you so sure?”). In this way you return the burden of proof.
  • If you have counter-arguments, present them confidently: “I would like to contradict you, precisely because I have been working in this industry for many years…” Then go straight to the point.

5. The either/or trap

To enforce a position, some speakers narrow their argument down to two alternatives. One of them sounds acceptable, the other deterrent. Here’s an extreme example: ” Our chemicals division is not innovative enough. So either we increase the budget or we divest the entire division.” In practice, there are usually significantly more alternatives.

How can you react?

  • You don’t have to name additional conceivable alternatives yourself, but you can put them up for discussion: “Do we really only have the two options mentioned?”

6. The perfection trap

Changes are not only positive. That doesn’t make them wrong. But sometimes critics pretend that any solution must be perfect. For example: A department wants to introduce an administration tool, but resistance is stirring at management level. Among other things, they expect that employees will not maintain their data conscientiously – therefore the tool is basically not useful. This is a classic blockade tactic.

How can you react?

  • Ask the critics for help to find a solution: “What better option do you see?” or “In what way could we eliminate this weak point together?”

7. Attack on the person

Fortunately, direct insults are rare in professional life. However, ad hominem attacks happen quite often: This means assaulting a person in his or her role, for example as CFO, divisional manager or unionist. Ad hominem arguments are usually made in front of an audience, with the aim of undermining trust, e.g. with accusations like this: “It’s obvious that you are over-critical. You are a works council and hope for your re-election.” Or: “It’s logical that you are in favor of the reorganization as you’re head of Department Y, which is supposed to be extended!”

How can you react?

  • Even if you’re very angry avoid paying back in kind.
  • You should either ignore the attack or react calmly, for example: “Yes, I am head of Department Y and yes, this department will grow. But that’s not the point of my position …”
  • Present your motivation in an objective manner; if necessary, play the “broken record”.

Finally, three general golden rules for controversial discussions:

  • Controversy is not a competition. Make yourself and your dialog partners aware that it is not about being right. Strive for consensus or insight. This includes that everyone truly wants to understand their counterparts and do not assume bad intentions.
  • Control your reflexes Often it is better not to reject annoying statements immediately, but to formulate questions and to ask you’re your discussion participants to clarify their positions.
  • Rather ignore that escalate In the heat of the debate, anyone may make an inappropriate comment. It is then advisable to take a deep breath and return to business, for example by saying: “Well, I suggest that we continue with a constructive discussion – do you agree?”
14.09.2020, Grosse-Hornke

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