Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


Don’t Argue In The Past Tense

Why would I want her to be annoyed?

Let’s say that Suellen and I have an argument and I notice that all the verbs are in the past tense. According to Aristotle, the verbs tell us that the argument is about blame. I may think it’s about who left the door unlocked or forgot to pay the mortgage. But it’s really about blame.

Let’s also say that I win that argument. (This is very hypothetical). I’ve successfully pushed the blame away from myself and on to her. It’s not easy to win an argument, so I do a little victory dance. Meanwhile, how does Suellen feel? Probably a mixture of emotions – irritation, annoyance, anger, … perhaps even a desire to get even. Suellen is the woman I love. Why on earth would I want her to feel like that? That’s the problem with arguing in the past tense. Even if you win, you lose.

Arguing in the past tense is generally known as forensic rhetoric. In many legal situations, we do want to lay blame. We want to establish guilt and make sure that the appropriate person is appropriately punished. Most of the testimony in a trial is in the past tense. Similarly, characters in crime dramas speak almost exclusively in the past tense. The goal is to lay blame and Aristotle and others give us rules for how to argue the point.

Outside of the courtroom, however, arguing in the past tense is essentially useless. We can’t do anything about the past. We can’t change it. We can’t enhance it. We can lay blame but, even then, we will argue endlessly about whether we got it right or not. Did we blame the right person? If so, did we blame them for the right reasons? Did we learn the right lessons? Did history teach us anything? Or did it teach us nothing?

The next time you’re in an argument, notice the verbs. If they’re in the past tense, you’re simply trying to blame the other person. Does it do any good to “win” such an argument? Nope. By “winning”, you just give the other side motivation to come back stronger next time. This is how feuds get started. The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, had it right: “Small-minded people blame others. Average people blame themselves. The wise see all blame as foolishness.”

Aristotle and Economics

He's back!

He’s back!

The Nobel economist, Robert Shiller, has an interesting assessment of economics in yesterday’s New York Times. Shiller is one of three economists to win the prize this year and they all have different opinions on rationality and economics.

Prizewinner number one, Eugene Fama, is a rationalist. Rational people making rational economic decisions can explain all of economics. You have to look closely, but it’s all rational. Prizewinner number two, Lars Peter Hansen, occupies a middle position, emphasizing mathematical models but also noting the importance of “animal spirits, … rare events, and overconfidence….”

Shiller (aka prizewinner number three) notes that he is “the most willing … to incorporate ideas about nonrational or irrational behavior from other social sciences….” I’ve written a bit about nonrational economic behaviors – like loss avoidance bias. Additionally, I know that I don’t always make decisions solely for the purpose of maximizing my income. In other words, they’re nonrational in the strictest sense of economic rationality. So, I’m probably in Shiller’s camp.

Ultimately, however, I think the debate goes all the way back to Aristotle who made a clear distinction between:

  1. Things that can never be other than they are, and:
  2. Things that can be other than they are.

Physics is in Category One. The speed of light won’t change, no matter how much we discuss it.  Thus, Aristotle proposes that analytics are the appropriate tools to study physics – and any other topic that falls in Category One. We analyze to understand, not to change things. By understanding, we may improve our ability to adapt to the world, but we’re not changing the world. (On  related topic, I worry that physics envy is leading economists astray. The economists are being nonrational).

On the other hand, Aristotle would put political science in Category Two. The way we govern ourselves can be changed and  improved. We need to analyze but we also need to come to a consensus. Aristotle codified rhetoric for this purpose. Rhetoric is the art and science of persuasion with the goal of reaching consensus on how we can improve the world around us. Rhetoric is not simply the art of winning an argument (that’s sophistry). Rhetoric helps us think clearly, reason together, and change what can be changed to build a better world.

I’ve been wondering recently whether economics fits into Category One or Two. If it’s Category One, all we can do is analyze it. We can describe economics but we can’t change it to build a better world – except in the sense that we can understand the world better. If economics is in Category Two, however, we could conceivably identify better ways to organize our economies and improve the world around us.

If economics is totally rational, then it seems to fit into Category One. We can only describe it. There’s no changing it (unless we can change human rationality, which seems improbable).

On the other hand, if economics has nonrational elements, then we could conceivably improve it. We could identify mechanisms that would help us balance rational and nonrational behaviors. As Shiller notes, he still advocates “a free market system, with innovations to make it work better.” I’m an optimist, so I’m hoping that economics fit naturally into Category Two. That’s why I’m lined up with Shiller (and Kahneman and others).

Aristotle has given us an interesting system to organize our thoughts. So what do you think? Does economics fit in Category One or Category Two?

Aristotle, HBR, and Me

Excellence is a habit.

Excellence is a habit.

I love it when the Harvard Business Review agrees with me. A recent HBR blog post by Scott Edinger focuses on, “Three Elements of Great Communication, According to Aristotle“. The three are: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos answers the questions: Are you credible? Why should I trust your recommendations? Logos is the logic of your argument. Is it factual? Do you have the evidence to back it up? (Interestingly, the more ethos you have,the less evidence you need to back up your logos. People will trust that you’re credible). Pathos is your ability to connect emotionally with your audience. If you have high credibility and impeccable logic, your audience might conclude that you could take advantage of them. Pathos reassures them that you won’t — your audience knows that you’re a good citizen.

When I teach people the arts of public speaking, I generally recommend that they start by establishing their credibility (ethos). The trick is to do this without overdoing it. If you come across as a braggart, you reduce your credibility rather than burnishing it. A good tip to remember is to use the word, “we” rather than “I”. “We” implies teamwork; “I” implies an egocentric psychopath.

After establishing your credibility, you proceed to the logic (logos) of your argument. What is it that you’re recommending and why do you think it’s a good solution for the audience’s needs? It’s often a good idea to start by defining the audience’s needs. Then you can fit the recommendation to the need. Keep it simple and use stories. Nobody remembers abstract logic and difficult technical concepts. They do remember stories.

Think about pathos both before the speech and in the conclusion. Ideally, you can meet the audience before your speech, ask insightful questions, and make personal connections. The more you can talk to members of the audience before the speech, the better off you’ll be. Look for anecdotes that you can use in your speech — that also builds your credibility. If nothing else, spend the last few minutes before your speech shaking hands with audience members and thanking them for coming to your speech. At the end of your speech, you can return to similar themes and express your appreciation. It’s also appropriate (usually) to point out how your recommendation will affect members of the audience personally. For instance, “We believe that our solution will help your company be more efficient. It will also help you build your career.”

Those of you who have followed my website for a while may remember my videos on ethos, logos, and pathos. I made them when I worked at Lawson Software and was teaching communication skills internally. Again, I’d like to thank Lawson for allowing me to use these videos on this website as I build my own practice.

By the way, all these suggestions apply to deliberative speeches. You present a logical argument and ask your audience to deliberate on it. On the other hand, you can also give a demonstrative speech where you throw the logic out altogether. They’re often called barn burners or stem winders. You can learn more here.

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