I have long thought that in debates with colleagues (or clients) over a topic/decision that you disagree on, you should go in with your strongest argument(s) only. If you assemble a list of different and weaker reasons why you are right, and the person in disagreement with has any authority over you or guile, they will focus on your weakest arguments. They will do so until the whole debate times out, or you lose energy to continue. Therefore, don’t bring your weak argumentative positions to the debate at all.

In real life … Consumerist summaries a case where a fellow was hit with a termination charge when he should not have been (business broadband). It ends well. Maybe because the media got involved.

He phoned them, said he was moving, gave the address, and they said it was all good and arranged a date for the installation.

However, they never turned up. Later they claim that they don’t serve that area, and he has to pay an punitive termination fee.

Work with me here: The fellow (to Consumerist): “I didn’t think that was fair, to pay an early termination fee, because I wanted to keep their service,” he explains. “And due to them not offering it in my area, I feel like I was being punished because they don’t offer the service here.”

Now he’s not saying he said the above to them on the phone exactly as he said it to Consumerist. And that after that they became indignant that he had to pay. Suppose he did say that though. It wasn’t his strongest argument. It’s nothing to do whether they do or don’t have service in his area, or whether he wanted to keep it after the move. His strongest argument is that he had an agreement with them to supply service to the new location, and they did not supply it. Therefore, he would be released from financial penalty because they did not hold up their side of that agreement. He should have held fast to that, and asked for a supervisor to write to him a summary of the reneged deal. Of course, we don’t actually know what was actually said - we just have a synopsis.

In debate, one often suspects the other person with weak arguments actually has stronger ones they are withholding for some reason. Strong might be subjective of course. “I just prefer X over Y, and always have”, or “I have historical bitterness with Y” appear to be weak to the receiver, but they might be heartfelt and sacrosanct to the person you could use them in debate. Sometimes though, we’re going to witness clutching at straws (referring to Strawman).

All bets are off in politics: we expect our opponent to lead with everything other than their strongest argument. In business, we should have excluded the politicians. Well, from our team, perhaps.

Anyway elsewhere on the interwebs, Jonah Sinick has nine yards of consideration whether many independent weak arguments are actually better after all.

Then there is also Wikihow’s Win Informal Arguments and Debates, that is worth a read.


April 2018

The “principle of charity” is related, but from the receiver’s point of view.


November 20th, 2014