When confronted with a contrary opinion, unsophisticated people tend to attack the other person’s credibility (e.g., “Marketing doesn’t know crap about selling”). This never wins an argument; at best, it devolves into mutual name-calling.
The more sophisticated approach is to attempt to undercut the other person’s argument by pointing out its weaknesses. However, focusing on an argument’s weaknesses is setting up a strawman that makes another person’s position easy to argue against.
For example, suppose you’re having a budget discussion over where to spend marketing dollars. Joe wants to spend the money on a trade show while Jane wants to spend the money on a new website. Their argument might look like this:
By focusing on the weaknesses of each other’s positions, both Joe and Jane are creating and then attacking straw man characterizations. Neither will be convinced because they sense that the other person is being unfair. The most likely result is an unproductive squabble.
Winning an argument permanently would mean convincing the other person that his or her position is invalid and your position is correct. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, the best way to accomplish this is to create a “Steel man” (rather than a strawman) version of the other person’s argument. You then argue against the steel man before presenting your own position.
To create a steel man, you put yourself in the shoes of the other person and muster from your own imagination the strongest arguments in favor of that position. This completely disarms the other person, if only because it’s so unexpected. Example:
By correctly and positively characterizing Joe’s position, Jane has increased her credibility. She’s also gone through a mental exercise that will allow her to more objectively understand Joe’s position. She may even have discovered that Joe’s idea is better than hers!
But let’s suppose that Jane still believes her position is correct. By creating a steel man, she has surfaced all the points that she’ll need to argue against to convince Joe that he’s wrong. That might look like this:
Jane has effectively neutralized anything that Joe might say at this point, but without attacking Joe or unfairly characterizing his position. This leaves the field free for Jane to present her own argument, like so:
Chance is that Jane’s arguments will win, especially if she presents her own steel man, thereby making it difficult for Joe to create a strawman.
But what if Joe takes the same approach as Jane and himself creates (and attacks) a steel man version of Jane’s position? So much the better for everyone involved and for the company, too.
Rather than squabbling and name-calling, Jane and Joe are now discussing the real issues, with both fully understanding the other’s position. They’re far more likely to reach agreement on the wisest way to spend the marketing budget. And that’s win-win.