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How to Win More Arguments

Reject false premises.
 
You want to win more debates?

Stop arguing on the other guy's terms.

Recognize a false premise, then reject it.

How? Learn to recognize when you're getting this little number played on you:
 
Let's say Dave from HR waddles up and asks, Have you stopped stealing office supplies? You see the problem:  answering at all is a built-in admission that you have been stealing.

I lead with this obvious example to make the principle clear: answer a question only if both sides buy into the assumptions behind it.

If you don't buy the premise, don't answer. Instead, reject the premise. Dave, don't accuse me of stealing. What's on your mind?
 

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Dubious premises are usually concealed much better than that, so be careful. Here's an example of someone who wasn't. In 1996, former member of congress Jack Kemp debated Vice President Al Gore in the vice-presidential debate for the fall election. Early on, Gore praised Kemp -- but not without a nasty little caveat. Read closely:
 
"Jack Kemp has been a powerful and needed voice against the kind of coarseness and incivility that you refer to.... I think it's an extremely valuable service to have a voice within the Republican party who says we ought to be one nation. … I compliment Mr. Kemp for the leadership he has shown in moving us away from that kind of attitude."
 
To which Mr. Kemp replied, "Well, I thank you, Al. I mean that very, very sincerely…."

Yikes. Keep in mind, this really happened, live, on national television. And now, a Mike's Writing Tips version of slo-mo instant replay:  allow me to translate the exchange, in case you missed it.

Gore:  Jack, everybody in your party is a butt, but you're not!
Kemp:  Thanks Al! I think so, too!


Ever hear of pride going before a fall? This is an example of that. Kemp missed the put-down because it was wrapped in a compliment, and the compliment was all he heard.

He missed the false premise.

And by responding at all, he was asserting that he agreed with Gore:  Yeah, the people who are my supporters are just like you said, a bunch of jerks.

Ick. Don't let that happen to you.

 

Begin by questioning the question. 



Parse questions before you reply.

Ask yourself what you are accepting as true if you choose to answer.

If you do not completely understand or accept the premise then reject it, and point out its ambiguity or hidden meanings.

Then reply -- but not until the premises, if any, are out in the open.

 


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