Dear Leaders

A weekly letter with actionable leadership ideas.

Steelmanning: Understand Deeper and Win More

By Hamza Shayk

Dear Leaders,

As C-suite executives, the ability to present your arguments concisely is crucial. But the ability to understand others’ arguments and craft an articulate response that’s well-suited for a given situation is pivotal to your effectiveness as a leader.

Your role entails making high-quality decisions – and fast, resolving conflicts in a way all stakeholders involved deem fair, and building consensus often. To accomplish that effectively and consistently, you need advanced argumentation skills.

Two techniques that’ll help you noticeably further those skills are the Strawman and the Steelman:

A Strawman argument is focusing on the weakest elements, even a misrepresentation, of someone else’s argument. This falsely makes your stance seem a lot stronger, but really only leads to more friction, disagreement, and resentment. And never results in a constructive resolution.

For example, if someone says, “I think we should tax the rich more,” and you respond by saying “So you think we should just take all their money away?”, you are creating a strawman argument. You are misrepresenting their argument as being more extreme than it actually is, in order to make it easier to attack.

Round and round we go.

A Steelman argument is simply the opposite of a strawman. It is a technique that presents the other person’s argument in the strongest possible form. You try to understand their position as well as possible, and then present it in a way that makes it as difficult as possible to refute.

Both are important tools.

Strawmanning can be used to defeat an opponent’s argument quickly and easily, but it is a dishonest and manipulative tactic. So, not really a win.

Steelmanning, on the other hand, is a more honest and respectful way to engage with opposing viewpoints. A skill set that, if mastered, transforms you into a formidable leader.

There are several benefits to using steelmanning in argumentation. It helps you to better understand the other person’s point of view. When you steelman someone’s argument, you are forced to think about it from their perspective. This leads to gaining a deeper insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their argument, and identifying any potential areas of compromise. As a rule, they are to steelman yours in return. In doing that, they open themselves to being influenced by you.

Steelmanning also helps to build rapport with the other person. When you show a willingness to listen to their point of view and to consider it seriously, they are more likely to be open to listening to yours, leading to more productive and respectful discussions.

Here’s when to utilize steelmanning:

1. Improve decision-making. By steelmanning the arguments of different stakeholders, executives gain a better understanding of the different perspectives on an issue. This helps you to make more informed and strategic decisions.

2. Build consensus. When executives are able to present the arguments of different stakeholders in a fair and balanced way, it helps gain consensus. This is essential for any organization that wants to be successful.

3. Resolve conflict. When there is a conflict between different stakeholders, steelmanning serves as a helpful tool for resolving the conflict. By considering both sides of the argument, you can find common ground and reach a mutually agreeable solution.

Here are some tips for steelmanning effectively:

1. Listen carefully to the other person’s argument. Try to understand their point of view as well as you can.

2. Ask clarifying questions. This helps ensure that you understand their argument correctly.

3. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of their argument. What are the best points in favor of their position? What are the potential weaknesses?

4. Present their argument in the strongest possible form. This means putting aside your own biases and presenting their argument in a way that is as persuasive as possible.

5. Be respectful and open-minded. Remember that you are trying to understand their point of view, not to win an argument.

Let us strive not merely to win arguments, but to foster an environment that values rigorous intellectual engagement, empathy, and respect. The next time you step into the battlefield of boardroom discourse or an employee disagreement, ask yourself: do I wish to knock down a man of straw or confront a man of steel?

The choice you make will profoundly shape the quality of your corporate dialogue and workplace culture.

Choose wisely.


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