How does one argue effectively? You might have heard of “straw man fallacy,” which is the act of exaggerating or distorting someone’s point of view to win an argument. For example, a person critical of vegan diets might claim that vegans are all easily influenced young people with no understanding of nutrition, and they all want everyone to eat measly salads all day long. Such a person might feel that they’ve won a point against the vegans as they are in this description, but there’s one big problem: that description is not accurate.
There is an opposite of this technique that’s actually far more helpful to use in arguments: the steel man technique. Instead of constructing an unflattering and easy-to-defeat image of your opponent and then destroying that, “steel manning” entails constructing the best version of the opposing side's argument before engaging with it. It's being charitable and deliberately patching up the flaws in the other side's argument so they can come up with the most effective counterargument to your position.
You might be wondering why you’d go to all this effort. Well, the steel-manning approach avoids a "you versus me" scenario. By first siding with the opposing side and reasoning in their terms, you demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in and understand their arguments. This will greatly increase the likelihood of them returning the favor, and suddenly, you are two respectful peers who are having an intelligent discussion, rather than two enemies who are flinging mud at one another. Even if you arrive at no real resolution, you have done something important: maintained respectful and harmonious relations.
Etiquette matters, perhaps in arguments more than at any other time. You’re not doing it to be selfless, however. Steel manning ennobles both you and the other person and makes the best of your interaction, wherever it goes. Let’s take a close look at the three steps of the steel man approach, with an example.
Step 1: Create the best version of your opponent’s argument by breaking it down
First, just set your own ideas aside for a moment, not unlike what you’d do in active listening. Focus on what the other person is actually saying, not what you think they’re saying (clean language will help here!). Be curious and empathetic, as though you were simply trying to find out more about a new person or culture, or even an alien race.
What is the main point they’re making? How are they supporting that line of argument? Can you identify the worldview, points of reference, attitudes, fears, beliefs, and motivations behind the argument? Can you find any weak points, gaps, or flaws in this argument?
As you do this, your intent is purely to understand—you’re not looking for a gotcha! moment. We’re also not trying to see if we agree. Just observe and understand, that’s all.
Example: You look at the vegans again and try to understand their position. They are actually acting from a moral and not a practical perspective, and they are making claims about the duty of humans to not create needless suffering in others. You start to see that nutrition actually has nothing to do with their core line of argument.
Step 2: Help them steel man their argument
Remember that people will never accept criticism or feedback from people they don’t believe actually understand their position in the first place. If you go in with a straw man, you convince nobody and achieve nothing. You may disagree with someone, but disagree with the best version of their claim, and everyone wins.
Ask the other person questions to clarify (again, not to catch out!), then restate what they’ve said in your own words to show you’ve understood (this may take a few tries). Present them with a summary of what you’ve been told that they themselves would agree with.
Only when you’ve arrived at a picture of their point of view that you both agree is fair and reflective, then you can start drawing attention to points they may not themselves have noticed. Do you see the value of steel manning now? If you’ve begun in good faith and worked together until this point, the other person is going to be far more interested in seeing what you point out. We are not just being contrarian; we are collaborating with them. It’s as though we say, “I respect you as a person and I want to make sure you have the best possible argument here. Let’s help each other do that.”
Example: You offer your vegan conversation partner your understanding of their position—i.e., the steel man version—and focus on the moral core of the argument. You say that this means that eating for health may be a secondary concern. They agree.
Step 3: Argue on your counterpart’s behalf
This takes enormous creativity, intelligence, and maturity. Don’t just look at the other person’s perspective from the outside. Get inside it and feel it for yourself. If you do this, you can see with crystal clarity the reasons why the person believes as they do, and everything that is standing in the way of them agreeing with you (if this is what you in fact want). You will never know an issue as deeply as when you deliberately and genuinely occupy both “sides.”
Example: Once you really feel like you get the vegan’s arguments, you more properly understand their behavior and the things they say. But now, when you make the criticism that veganism as a way of life seems nutritionally a little suspect, they are less likely to argue—after all, you have both agreed together that being nutritionally sound is not the core aim of the philosophy! However, coming at this issue in this way means the other side can actually hear it. Ignorantly saying, “Vegans know nothing about nutrition,” only creates more tension and discord.
Importantly, we could reverse this argument and instead have the vegan hear the omnivore’s position, going through the three steel-manning steps in the same way. What matters is that neither party is approaching the debate to win, to beat down their “opponent,” or to prove themselves superior. And because of this, they both leave the discussion as winners, with intact self-esteem and possibly more robust arguments going forward.
Sure, you probably can’t imagine going through this whole process with every minor disagreement. Steel manning works best for high-stakes and very emotional topics, but can also be used in more everyday ways here and there. You may simply be more aware of this dynamic in everyday conversations and refuse to engage in dialogues where your argument is willfully misconstrued. Or you might get into the habit of reminding yourself, “Everyone’s opinion makes sense to them. If I don’t understand, it’s just because I don’t yet see how it makes sense.” It’s a choice to assume that people are sane, broadly good, and are behaving in a way according to their principles.
Steel manning in arguments is about dignity—yours and the other person’s—and shifting your mindset when it comes to the purpose of dialogue. Steel manning holds everyone to a higher standard and takes ego out of it. Think of it this way: you can win or you can convince. You can stubbornly boast or you can understand.
Use this technique often enough and you will discover that you are far more ready to change your own opinion than you first realized—and this is not “losing” an argument but gaining so much more!
Dealing with Aggressive People: the Fogging Technique
Let’s be honest, no matter how cool, calm, and collected you are, occasionally in life you will encounter someone who is . . . not. Once someone has become actively hostile or rude, it can be incredibly difficult to pull the conversation back to terra firma. In an earlier chapter, we explored how to be assertive by using the “stuck record” technique and reiterating our boundaries calmly but firmly. Think of the fogging trick as taking things a step further.When I Say No, I Feel Guilty (:
Fogging involves neutrally agreeing with any truth contained in statements, even if it is critical. Because you are not responding by being defensive or argumentative, the confrontation will eventually end because the desired effect is not being achieved. There is nothing to push back against or grab hold of.
Fogging is not just pacifism or escaping. The idea is that when the atmosphere is calmer, it will be easier to talk about the issues rationally. Before then, there’s no point in actually engaging, so don’t.
The technique is simple. First and foremost, pay attention to what the other person is saying, regardless of how they are saying it. When something they say is true, rather than becoming defensive or argumentative, we simply state in a calm and clear tone that it is, in fact, true.
For example, when the aggressive person says, "What were you thinking when you acted so stupidly in that meeting? You were embarrassing me in front of our co-workers!" rather than replying with something equally aggressive or defensive, you could try to “fog” them by responding, “You're right. My behavior was pretty stupid a while ago. I understand that my actions were really embarrassing.”
You don’t add anything or take away anything. You agree with what is factually correct without going on the defensive or upping the emotional stakes. The other person may try again, but eventually it will seem pointless to keep coming for you since you’ve acknowledged their grievance. If, however, you denied or deflected or got aggressive yourself, the conflict could get even more heated.
In a way, fogging is not all that dissimilar from steel manning. If we can have the strength of character to affirm that there is a kernel of truth in even the criticisms leveled at us, we are responding in effect to the best possible version of that criticism. We immediately elevate the discussion rather than bring it down to aggression or defense.
Although it might be the last thing you feel like doing in the heat of the moment, fogging is actually a great assertiveness technique and can be used to de-escalate conflict. Basically, the best way to be in the face of aggression is calm and neutral. Not passive, not aggressive, just neutral—like fog. Don’t feed the aggression, don’t respond to it, don’t fight with it. Ironically, this puts you in more control of the situation, not less.
The technique is simple:
1. Listen closely for any truth in what is being said.
2. Repeat this truth as calmly and neutrally as possible.
3. Don’t add any new information, and don’t respond to exaggerations, distortions, or lies. Just ignore those.
4. Importantly, maintain calmness, even if the other person is aggressive.
People in call centers or those managing complaints often need to master this skill. For example:
A: I was promised the builders would be finished by Thursday afternoon, and now it’s already Saturday and they’re still busy!
B: You’re right, we did agree to a Thursday afternoon, but despite it being Saturday, they’re not finished yet.
A: This is unacceptable! Totally unacceptable.
B: Yes, I can see how this is not something you’re happy with.
A: Damn straight I’m not happy. I had plans for this weekend, and now they’re ruined.
B: I recognize that. It’s an unacceptable situation, and you’ve had to change your plans. That’s on us.
A: Yes, well, it is your fault. But I need them to be finished now.
B: I understand that. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure we make this a priority. They need to be finished as soon as possible.
A: Exactly. Thank you. Sorry for yelling, it’s been a long week. Please just sort it out.
B: Absolutely. Thank you for being patient.
The conversation above is really about energy. Person A begins with aggression, and Person B responds with calm. A responds with more aggression, and B again responds with calm. Gradually, A’s aggression drains away in the face of B’s calm “fog.” They’re still not exactly happy, but the aggression has lessened.
Notice how this process is similar to giving a good apology—we need to accept responsibility but without beating ourselves up or defending ourselves.
Though simple, this technique is not always easy. The biggest problem is to not get upset and defensive ourselves. Maintaining calm when we feel attacked is difficult, but it’s a powerful way to dial back that fight-or-flight, high-stakes feeling. You don’t have to apologize, explain, justify, or elaborate. Just imagine that a pile of mud has been flung at you, and your job is simply to pick out the small bits of gold that might be in it. Don’t get distracted by the mud!
It's also a good idea to acknowledge how the other person feels, but be careful about stating the obvious or putting words into people’s mouths. Likewise, fogging works as a temporary way to de-escalate tension. Once tension is lowered, either pull back or try to re-engage again. Nothing can be more frustrating than a person who is just a blank wall and keeps repeating what you say!
Turn Conflict into Compassion with the Ransberger Pivot
When conversing with someone who has a different view from ours, our first knee-jerk reaction may be to contradict or correct them. This could drive the discussion to become intense, personal, and ineffective. If we really want to convince someone with our point of view, though, something that can come in handy is the Ransberger Pivot, which is almost a way to “win an argument without arguing.”Created in:
First, stop talking and listen carefully to what they are saying. Make it your mission to learn what matters to them and why. As in the DESC model, make eye contact and seek to understand before wanting to be understood.
Second, voice a point of agreement and admit misunderstanding. Actively look for points that you agree on as though you are building a bridge to reach one another. Reiterate how you are not, fundamentally, on the same team. Literally say, “I agree . . .” as often as possible. If you find out that you misunderstood or misinterpreted something they said, be honest and admit it. They may be more willing to reciprocate later in the conversation if you admit an error or mistake. Remember to fight with and not against. You are not identifying who is right, but what is right. If you discover that you’re actually in error, gracefully admit it and move on swiftly.
Lastly, follow up. Now that you've reframed the conversation, you're on the same page about the problem and want the same positive outcome. This is the time to start discussing how your idea will help you both solve the problem. Talk about solutions, ways forward, and plans. Remember to keep your common goal in mind and stay respectful.
Using the Ransberger Pivot is effective in putting people on opposite sides of an issue and bringing them together, avoiding a heated discussion. It shifts from a combative to a cooperative environment. There is suddenly a lot less to argue about when both people agree. In addition, it validates the other person rather than attacking them; you can end the conversation as friends rather than enemies.Dale Carnegie, author of the:
The Ransberger Pivot is about getting out of this me-versus-you framework and putting both people on the same side. When you abandon the idea of winning an argument, you realize that you don’t actually need to have a winner and a loser, and it’s not necessary for someone to feel humiliated, chastened, or corrected. The technique helps you get to that frame of mind sooner.
As with the other techniques of this kind, you don’t need to go all out with every tiny disagreement. In everyday life, simply make the conscious effort to focus on what you agree on, rather than dwell on what you don’t agree on. Keep asking yourself, in what way am I and the other person the same? In what way do we want the same thing? Then focus on that.
Most human beings have a strong sense of fairness and justice, most want to protect children, to reward the deserving, and to support the things they believe benefit society. Use “chunking up” techniques (as discussed earlier) to zoom out until you find the bigger picture that you can both agree on. This dissolves the feeling of enmity and makes your differences a mere detail, something practical to work out. If you first establish that you are on the same team, then you are like two people working together on a puzzle, rather than warriors mutually trying to kill one another.
One very important point: this technique is about emotion, not facts and logic. Get on the same page emotionally. If all that means is you politely and sincerely “agree to disagree,” that’s still progress!
When Resolving Conflict, Use the “Feel, Felt, Found” Approachfamily and friends (Romanova,:
The typical wording of feel, felt, found is as follows:
"I understand how you feel." This is meant to show the person that you have heard them and can empathize with them.
“I know someone who had a similar situation and felt the same way.” Tell them about someone else who felt the same way they did at first. You're assuring the person that they're not alone and that things can improve.
“We found that this worked best" Explain to them how that individual discovered the solution that fixed the problem.
You might not always have the time or energy for a more elaborate approach, or it simply may not be appropriate. But the feel, felt, found technique can be deployed quickly and easily almost any time. Quickly create empathy by acknowledging how the other person feels (note, this comes first!), gently shift the issue into more objective territory by relating that emotion to someone else, then finish off by pointing to what’s worked in the past to resolve the current issue.
Here are a few more examples to see this technique in action:
With a client expressing concerns over a project time frame:
“I completely get that you’re feeling nervous about how long the first drafts are taking to be completed. My other clients have felt that way in the past before. What I’ve found, however, is that they often feel better once they see at least one or two mockups and can envision how the project will turn out.”
With a stressed-out family member:
“I know you must feel so overwhelmed right now with planning everything for this trip. I certainly felt that way when I was planning our big holiday last year. I’ve found that slowing down and just paying attention to the very next task you need to focus on makes a big difference.”
With a customer who has a complaint about your product:
“I can see you’re disappointed about XYZ’s performance. We had another customer just this morning who experienced the same thing. He discovered that allowing the battery to power down completely now and then got rid of the problem.” (In this example, you can see that a similar effect is possible even if you don’t use the exact words feel, felt, and found).
A word of warning, though: this approach, like the fogging technique, is designed for use in short bursts. You’ve probably called a customer care line before or made a complaint, only to encounter someone who talked to you robotically and seemed to deflect every point you raised. Somehow, being told again and again, “I understand how you feel,” just didn’t make things better! You needed someone to demonstrate that they understood and take meaningful action to help you.
It has to be genuine, and the anecdotes you raise must have some real and believable connection to the person you’re talking to. In other words, this tactic comes from the sales world, and it shows! Don’t say, “I know how you feel” if you sincerely don’t and have made zero effort to empathize. Likewise, your suggested course of action should not be a brush-off, but something that can really help the other person.
This technique could be used to put people’s minds at ease and address reservations (thereby convincing and persuading them), or it can be used to smooth over misunderstandings or gently bring people round to solutions rather than dwell on grievances. You could combine this trick with fogging, or use both negative enquiry and negative assertion when someone is approaching you with criticism or complaint. For example:
“I can see you feel angry with me right now for not fixing this problem for you. You’re right that this incident could have been handled better (fogging). What exactly did you hope I would be able to do for you today (negative enquiry)? I once had a colleague who felt how you did. We found that when we communicated things by email, we understood each other a lot better. Might that help here?”
A few things to remember when using this technique:
• Try as hard as you can not to be dismissive. Your attitude is more calm, neutral, and in control rather than, “This isn’t important; I’m brushing you off.”
• It can be useful to point to a time when you felt what they did, but it’s usually better to talk about how someone else felt what they did. You don’t want to make it seem like you are inserting your own feelings or making everything about you.
• When showing empathy, use phrases like, “that makes sense” or “I can see why you feel that way.”
• Remember your platinum rule and frame potential solutions and resolutions from their perspective. What would help them feel better right now?
• If you are genuinely out of your depth and can’t think of a truthful way to use this approach, don’t. Don’t merely pretend to have everything under control! Not every situation can be de-escalated, and there may be situations where you personally cannot offer legitimate help; in this case, be honest and offer apologies or make amends.
Use the Agreement Frameler and John Grinder in the:
The technique is pretty simple. The important words to use are "I agree/respect/appreciate," followed by "and." We begin by saying those mentioned I-statements and then we express the other person's model of the universe or perspective on the circumstance. Then we say "and," then our intended outcome, and finally the other person's desired outcome.
"I respect your concerns, and you may want to be aware of that . . ."
"I appreciate that you're saying this because you sincerely care, and what's most important here is that we . . ."
"I agree that from your point of view, this makes the most sense, and I invite you to consider that . . ."
The Agreement Frame eliminates opposition from others, primarily because it doesn’t use combative language like “but.” Imagine that the word “but” basically cancels out everything you’ve said before. The agreement frame keeps people interested in what we are saying and leaves them open to fresh ideas.
Interestingly, it does not recommend the use of “I understand” because it can provoke an argument that you don’t really understand. “Oh, sure, I understand” can come across as extremely condescending and dismissive. When we instead say, "I agree/respect/appreciate," it’s more believable, and the other person's thinking shifts into a receptive condition to hear how we agree with them. This receptive condition also makes them more open to our suggestions. Let’s take a closer look.
The expanded structure of the frame goes like this:
YOU AGREE > YOU ACKNOLEDGE THEIR WORLD MODEL > “AND” > YOU ACKNOLWEDGE YOUR DESIRED OUTCOME > YOU FINISH WITH THEIR DESIRED OUTCOME
Looking at that, you can see that the intention is to maintain rapport while still disagreeing. You literally put your views together in the same expression, but without language to show any problem. Starting out with “I agree” is like a signpost that primes the listener that there is no threat coming. Doing this alone is extremely effective at making others more receptive to what we say.
The secret is to maintain rapport and to almost sandwich your request or contentious opinion. Look above at the structure: YOU AKCNOWLEDGE YOUR DESIRED OUTCOME is wedged in only after you demonstrate that you grasp and respect their desired outcome. Then things proceed smoothly. Compare the following:
“We have loads more to do on this. We’re going to need to do overtime.”
“Hmmm . . . I’m pretty exhausted. I don’t know if I can manage overtime right now.”
“Really?” (Person is annoyed, and there’s a sudden feeling of conflict).
“We have loads more to do on this; if we want to get everything done by our deadline, we’re going to need to do overtime.”
“I agree. We’re swamped! And I think if we have some much-needed rest right now, we’ll be able to get everything done by our deadline.”
Can you spot the agreement frame structure? This is not unlike non-violent communication where we assert our own needs, boundaries, and desires without arousing any resistance in the other person. Note also that here, there is a subtle Ransberger Pivot being used, in that the person ends by mentioning their common shared goal. It’s hard to imagine anyone responding negatively to conversation 2—the disagreement is still there, but there isn’t any hostility, aggression, or negativity.
The agreement frame is a simple technique that runs very deep. It’s an approach that says, “I am confident enough and respect you enough to disagree with you without it being a problem.” Even if you can’t quite remember how to construct an agreement frame in the moment, try to remember simply to banish this word “but” from your vocabulary and simply replace it with “and” (that goes for all related words, like however, yet, although . . .).
In truth, sometimes it may feel like a stretch to say, “I agree,” and doing so could come across as phony. But you can use other words, such as “I respect” or “I appreciate.” Remembering that much of conflict resolution is about emotions; it’s more about the energy and attitude you’re conveying than the literal words you’re saying. For that matter, watch your tone, body language, and facial expression when you speak, too.
Each of us processes information differently. But we are all the same in that we don’t respond well when our viewpoint is dismissed out of hand, and somebody comes along to correct, belittle, or downplay that viewpoint. Sometimes, however, you don’t necessarily need to dig down deep into another person’s mental filters and personal beliefs. All you need to do is respectfully acknowledge it, behave as though it matters and is as important as your own, and demonstrate that you’re willing to accommodate it. Wouldn’t you like others to take the same approach with you?
The big insight is that we don’t have to make others wrong to express what we think is right. When your goal is rapport, flow and connection, then almost all conflict is removed. Sure, you may still disagree, but you can do so from a place of mutual respect and understanding. So, ironically, the world’s best conflict resolution experts and mediators are those who begin every encounter expressly not focusing on the conflict at hand. This is easily said but quick tricky to put into practice. Once you get a taste for how this mindset shift completely changes your social interactions, though, you’ll never look back.
• Arguments are sometimes inevitable but we can argue best if we use “steel manning” rather than attacking a strawman. Create the best version of your opponent’s argument by breaking it down, then help them build that argument, actively arguing on your counterpart’s behalf. You will more quickly reach harmonious agreement, or at least disagree more civilly.
• Use the fogging technique to manage people who are aggressive or unreasonable. By giving people a minimal, calm response that they cannot easily engage with, you defuse tension. Listen carefully for a kernel of truth, repeat the truth calmly and neutrally, but don’t add any new information and keep maintaining calm.
• The Ransberger pivot is a way to “win an argument without arguing.” Listen carefully to start, look for points of commonality, and keep returning to any ways in which you and the other person are actually on the same page.
• The “feel, felt, found” technique is another a simple way to mitigate conflict. Acknowledge how they feel, point to another person who has felt similarly in the past, then show what you have found works based on how this person managed the issue.
• Finally, the agreement frame allows us to gracefully disagree with someone without destroying rapport. Use terms like I respect, I appreciate and I agree to signal an intention to cooperate. Agree, acknowledge their position, and acknowledge both your desired outcomes, using “and” rather than “but.”