When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

19 January 2009

Argument vs. persuasion

With Phil's kind permission, I am elevating a rather interesting comment left at this post, to the status of "guest post".

At lunch today I was talking with a new friend about the difference between argument and persuasion.


In the senses we were using, "argument" is about figuring out (or proving) what is correct. Persuasion is about getting people to act in a particular direction.

Successful policy and politics need to succeed at both: knowing what is correct, and persuading people to embrace and act on that position.

A successful populist should have viewpoints developed out of good arguments (i.e., honest and informed analysis), that they then garner support for based on good persuasion.

Without good persuasion, strong ideas are wasted and no populism happens (current Dems might point to the Carter administration as an example of that).

Without good ideas, strong persuasion is a nightmare. (Most current Americans would point to McCarthyism as an example of that.)

[And now, to some stuff that Doc may well comment on].

I also have observations on the way we learn to "argue", and how do it differently in the classroom in comparison to the rest of our lives. As I see it -- loosely speaking, again:

I notice that in formal education, much time is spent -- quite appropriately -- teaching kids to think critically and to create strong and rational argument. (I seem to recall that my freshman comp class at CMU was called "Argumentative Writing".) We recognize students with good grades when they have "argued" well. We can call this "intellectual persuasion."

But everything changes when they leave the classroom and return to the real world of work, family, society, etc.

Outside the space of formal debate, "Argument" takes on three different and sometimes contradictory meanings:

1. Argument (or debate or analysis -- choose your term) for the purpose of discerning truth.

2. Argument for the sake of "winning" a contest in which one party is deemed Right (and victorious) and the other is deemed Wrong (and defeated).

3. Argument with the intent of getting someone to do something (i.e., persuasion).

[BTW -- I know that I'm being horribly imprecise with my language, but I suspect you're following my line of thinking, even if you're substituting your own words.]

What I often wish for people I work with (in volunteer settings or in past work setting) is that people could see honest argument/debate as a means for figuring out what they ought to do as a team (function 1) rather than as a means for figuring out who can claim organizational superiority (function 2) in that particular moment. You know: attack the problem, not the people. Especially when the people are presumably on your team!

The other thing that I want to internalize more into my own days is to remember -- presuming I have an accurate sense of what things need to be done (whether or not other people have thought it through and/or agree with me) -- that I need to spend my energy effectively persuading folks to act in a way that' s useful, instead of spending my energy trying to get them to understand and buy into my line of reasoning.

In other words, I want to learn how to say with a smile, "Jim -- I'd really appreciate it if you could manage Task X and do it with Technique Y. Could you do that for us? Thanks -- we will really appreciate your help, and yes we'll be sure to let folks know you were responsible for that part of our success. There's no way we could pull this off without you."

This is so much better than my natural urge to say, "Jim -- I've heard your proposal, and here is why Tasks A, B, and C are less important to Task X. And now that you understand that, let me tell you why Technique Y is better than Technique Z which is what you've told me you're inclined to pursue. And I hope you'll be able to observe from the team's past behaviors from 2004 to 2008 that we always give proper acknowledgment to people who work on our project. So you're going to do Task X for us now with Technique Y, right?"

Or, as I put it when I was a new engineer, "Is it that people don't like being told they're wrong? Or that people don't like being told they're wrong by someone who's in their face, yelling really loud, and calling them idiots?"

No comments: