This past Sunday, I came across a Pearl’s Before Swine piece. The strip in question compares “how good investigative reporting works” with “how social media works.”
To illustrate the first, it shows a reporter asking someone – a big businessman or politician, by the looks of him – if he committed a certain crime. The guy says no, and so the journalist goes back to his newspaper boss to report the response… along with his belief that the powerful person is lying.
The boss advises, “Before we go rushing to judgement, let’s do the legwork on this.” And so “reporters fanned out all over the city and checked and rechecked documents and talked and talked to witnesses. And armed with facts, they applied the white-hot journalistic heat to their subject” until he admitted the truth.
Yes, he had done it.
Next up, the cartoonist depicts an average individual on Twitter, presumably, asking another average individual, “Did you do it?” Average Individual #2 starts to reply, but only gets out “I –” before Average Individual #1 blasts him with a flamethrower, crying, “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!”
“I haven’t answered yet,” the smoking AI #2 protests. Yet AI #1 is already dashing off.
“Sorry,” he says. “On to the next thing.”
It reminds me of a seemingly lost art of arguing. And one that can make us look infinitely better than wielding a flamethrower, at that.
It’s all about harnessing the power of “but.”
By the power of “but,” I mean laying out the opposition’s argument in writing. And not just laying it out, but making it sound good.
After you have, you dismantle it piece by piece, explaining why it just doesn’t work in reality. You don’t have to be a jerk about it (although you can be if you really want to). In fact, by not being a jerk, you can win some converts at best and some consideration otherwise.
That’s actually the main point of the power of using “but” in an argument. It’s about encouraging people of the opposite persuasion to actually consider what you’re saying. And, to do that, you first show them that you’re ready and willing to consider what they’re saying.
You’ve listened to them, your intro shows.
You understand where they’re coming from.
As such, will they give you the same respect in turn?
If you’re a reasonable person, you can probably see why this kind of argument can be so effective. Though even a reasonable person can be forgiven for having no idea what “but” has to do with the Pearls Before Swine strip I referenced in the beginning.
So let’s clarify the connection…
It’s difficult to truly convert someone to your way of thinking by attacking them with flamethrowers. They’re only going to feel assaulted and therefore less than willing to consider you a reasonable person that way.
They’ll brand you a criminal if you used an actual flamethrower. And they’ll label you a jerk if you use a figurative one.
Hardly a great way to make friends and influence people.
Yet when you begin by saying, “Okay, I understand why you believe what you believe” before employing the power of "but" to showcase your side of the story…
You’re much more likely to begin a civilized conversation.
And civilized conversations are much more likely to lead toward persuasion. Unlike flamethrowers.