False Dilemmas: a Recurring Battle

fire-and-water-2354583_640

Note: This is a companion piece of sorts to a couple of earlier posts: Getting Beyond Either/Or, and Change Happens at the Center. Both of which touch on the importance of seeing opportunities for creating change when you look beyond the only two options you are being presented with.


A False Dilemma (also known as a False Dichotomy) is a logical fallacy that reduces an argument down to only two options despite the fact that many more options may exist. We hear them every day: “America, love it or leave it;” “You’re either with us or you’re against us;” “You either love me or you hate me.”

People in opposition to your goals will use these fallacious arguments in an attempt to force you into an extreme position to create the assumption that there are only two positions. That way they can paint you with broad strokes, and start employing other logical fallacies to misrepresent your positions.

False dilemmas are particularly popular with politicians in ‘us vs. them’ two party systems. People with lines drawn in the sand are not interested in entertaining the idea of reasonable alternatives. To paint the two-options-only picture serves to get potential supporters to forget logic and reason, and to dig in their heels against a one-dimensional villain.

How Do You Counter a False Dilemma?

According to the website, Effectiviology, there are several ways to respond to a false dilemma argument. Here are a just a few of those strategies.

  • Refute the premise of mutual exclusivity by explaining why two options can both be true. Give examples of how ideas be defined as either/or can be described as both/and.
  • Refute the premise of collective exhaustivity by providing counterexamples which show that there are additional options beyond the ones which were presented.
  • Refute the validity of one of the options that it contains. For example, one frequently repeated either/or dilemma is the argument against raising the minimum wage is that raising the minimum wage will put small businesses out of business. However, Researchers say raising the minimum wage doesn’t kill small businesses or reduce job opportunities.
  • Refute with a counter-dilemma using similar premises, but which reaches a different conclusion.

One of my favorite ways to confront a false dilemma is to point out what values both sides have in common. It is the quickest way to show gray areas of this ‘black and white’ argument. Common self-interest is a powerful thing.

Some Thoughts on Arguing

Kent Brockman: Mr. Simpson, how do you respond to the charge that petty vandalism such as graffiti is down 80%, while heavy sack beatings are up a shocking 900%?

Homer: Oh people can come up with statistics to prove anything Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.

– The Simpsons, “Homer the Vigilante”

We live in a world where civil discourse has become a rare commodity. There is little productive debate on topics of great importance, because people of influence and affluence have decided to force every issue into a framework consisting of lines drawn in the sand. This presents a tremendous challenge not only to democracy, but also to anyone advocating for social change.

I am not a scholar of the art of rhetoric. Nor do I claim to understand how argument and debate manifest themselves in cultures other than the one in which I live. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how you might, or might not want to approach arguing.

Arguing as Seed Planting

There are different definitions of “winning” an argument. An argument does not have to be a knock-down-drag-out fight. Sometimes the win simply consists of giving the other person something to think about.

Unless it is a unique situation involving instant replay enabling rules, when a coach or manager in any sport argues with a referee, they do not usually expect that a call will be immediately overturned. They are, however, planting seeds of concern or doubt in the mind of the official. If I tell you that number 12 is routinely breaking a rule, you will probably pay more attention to number 12 as the game moves forward.

Don’t Argue Values

The issues that we disagree on are laden with personal values. People have opposing views on issues because they have conflicting values. I dislike chocolate ice cream. I love vanilla ice cream. You will never convince me that chocolate ice cream is preferable to vanilla ice cream. When you argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, what is in dispute is a value. It is a preference, not a fact.

We should not fall into a trap of engaging those with whom we disagree in arguments about values. If you argue, it should be about facts. Facts still matter, and your facts should always be accompanied by evidence. In fact, next time you feel yourself being pulled into an argument, try the following approach. Don’t immediately set out trying to change the other person’s mind. Don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, articulate as clearly as succinctly as possible, the reasoning that supports your position. When you meet a skeptical person explain to them why you have taken your stand.

Don’t Argue – at Least Not with Everyone

There is a psychological concept known as cognitive dissonance. It suggests that people have a hard time dealing with the stress created by simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It is believed that in order to reduce the discomfort created by the conflicting ideas, people will avoid the introduction of the conflicting ideas whenever possible. There are multiple research studies that suggest that people often see attacks on their belief as attacks on their identity, thus making them dig in their heels even more, thus increasing divisiveness.

If you refer back to my piece, “Change Happens at the Center,” you will see a strategy that may be useful when you’ve identified where a person sits on the continuum of opinion of the issue in question. The idea is to avoid the line in the sand people by focusing on moving passive opposition to a neutral state; neutral people to a passively supporting state; and passively supportive people to a fully committed state.  Read that full post here.

Agree with Your Opponent

Using a type of paradoxical thinking, you might use an approach that doesn’t directly argue with a person, but rather, tells them that they are right. Then, using their assumptions, you come up with absurd examples that prove their point.  Fair warning, this technique can backfire so be sure to practice it in some friendly, inconsequential settings first.

Go Ahead and Argue

Finally, if you absolutely have to throw down the gauntlet, try to go in with some sort of strategic framework. Here is an example of some tips which you might want to use to engage with your adversary. They come from, “10 Tips On Going For An Argument Win” by Siobhan Harmer (See the full article for details).

  1. Start off pleasantly
  2. Base your arguments on facts
  3. Respect the opinions of the other side
  4. It does not hurt to admit your mistakes
  5. Exercise self-control
  6. Try to have your adversary agree with you
  7. Ignore statements that have no merit
  8. Always keep an open mind during arguments
  9. Give your adversary the time to talk
  10. Play Up Your Arguments

That’s all I’m going to say on the subject for now, so don’t argue (or do . . . it’s up to you).

Disagreements Among Friends

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Just because you have the same goals, doesn’t mean that you will agree with like-minded people about everything. People with shared values are going to disagree from time to time. These conflicts are not often about “deal breaker” issues. They are frequently based on cultural differences.

We have different communication styles. Some groups have different ways that people come to know things, or different attitudes towards disclosure. Not everyone prefers the same decision-making processes. Leaders have to be aware of these differences, and help figure out a way to choose effective strategies even if they differ from their own preferences.

Obviously, we can’t know all things about all cultures. There are no universal intercultural problem-solving methods. There are things, however, that are pretty universal:

  • People from all backgrounds want to be listened to and understood.
  • In every culture people respond to respect and disrespect.

Getting to a state where this becomes easier requires active listening, honesty and honest sharing. This may mean postponing an action or project until compromises have been negotiated.

Delays can be frustrating, but ultimately, the trust that has developed by taking the time to iron out disagreements now, will pay big dividends in the future.

All of this is easy if you keep a sense of humor. It’s amazing how a little self-deprecating humor can ease tensions when people are anxious over disagreements.

Getting Beyond Either/Or

(This post is adapted from a piece I recently published at Medium.com.)

“The reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue.”
– The Dalai Lama

We too frequently fall into the trap of dividing the world into simplistic, either/or categories.  Things are either good or bad. Ideas are either liberal or conservative. Forget about purple; states are either red or blue, right?

Don’t imagine that the same person could be simultaneously progressive, liberal or conservative depending on the particular concern under consideration.  Don’t imagine that a deeper analysis of an issue might expose degrees of political belief, or of good and bad.   A world of absolutes is just so much easier – so much more convenient.

Letting everyone know that you have some sort of ideologically pure path to get to the mythical outcome, seems more important than understanding what that outcome might actually mean.  As Albert Einstein put it, “Perfection of means and confusion of ends seems to characterize our age.”

What makes people interesting, are their contradictions. We all know people who are both introverts and extroverts, or both humble and egotistical. There is a long list of personal traits that bear out the fact that we live along multiple continuums of belief and behavior. Why then can we not seem to recognize this reality when it comes to questions around ideology and values?

The roots of either/or perspectives might lie in zero-sum thinking, meaning  that you believe that one side wins only if the other side loses. It is a narrow framework that despises constructive dialogue, and compromise.

This distorted winner-take-all perspective leads to fear-driven decisions. It breeds fear, xenophobia, racism, and a boatload of other paranoia. Emotion and rumor trump logic and evidence. People build walls and draw lines in the sand.

We can get past the either/or trap by concentrating just a little effort on our communication skills. Consider the shift from adversarial, to dialogic communication outlined in the table below.

adversarial vs dialogic communicationBased on a table in:
Escobar, Oliver. The dialogic turn: dialogue for deliberation. In_Spire Journal of Law, Politics and Societies (Vol. 4, No. 2 – 2009)

If we hope to effectively address the multitude of problems facing our world, it is clear that we are going to need less “either/or” and more “both/and.”  As Wendell Berry said, “If you start a conversation with the assumption that you are right or that you must win, obviously it is difficult to talk.” It is, however, possible. Here are a few simple tips to get started:

  • Find a safe space for private, one-on-one conversations with people whose positions on issues differ from your own.
  • Do not enter these conversations as if they are contests.
  • Listen carefully and avoid constructing your own argument in your head while they are talking.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Don’t take disagreements personally.
  • Focus on sharing ideas and creating new ones informed by your common, as well as your competing values.
  • Be open to changing your mind.

Finding Opportunities in Conflict

“What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity…Fear of difference is fear of life itself.”
– Mary Parker Follett

We experience conflict every day. Every time you make a decision you are to some degree, resolving conflict. For people organizing to create change, conflict sometimes needs to be resolved between allies, and of course, always needs to be addressed with adversaries.

Rather than survey the mountain of literature available on the topic of conflict resolution, let’s focus for now on two things. First, we’ll explore Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann’s, Five Modes for Handling Conflict, and think about how they might relate to leadership. Secondly, we’ll address the notion that conflict – this thing that we’d all just like to go away, actually has numerous benefits that can help to develop other areas of our capacity to lead.

Five Modes for Handling Conflict (Thomas-Kilmann)

conflict resolution
Chart source: An Overview of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, http://www.kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki

According to Thomas and Kilmann, our behavior in conflict situations focuses on two dimensions: 1) assertiveness (What’s in it for me and how do I get it?); and 2) cooperativeness (How can I satisfy others’ concerns?). Leadership means having to constantly balance these dimensions in order to move closer to your desired outcomes.

Competing – Everyone uses all five of these modes of conflict resolution. More often than not, however, competing gets the most attention. When you are trying to make specific changes in the world, a zero-sum orientation is often where you find yourself. A referendum passes or fails. A candidate wins or loses. The key for leaders is not to let this single-mindedness spill over into every interaction, because the next success might depend on collaboration with one of your winner-take-all victims.

Avoiding – dodging conflict for the sake of appearing neutral can have a similar outcome to any aversion to risk – no pain, no gain. Removing yourself from a situation could mean not benefitting from the gains resulting from the successful resolution of the conflict. Leaders should to at least some degree, embrace conflict rather than avoid it.

Accommodating – allowing an unchallenged “win” in an effort to not rock the boat is a situational judgment call. What is the return on the investment of this good will? One warning, accommodation is also where a lot of ethically questionable behavior resides – like spinning something to make yourself look good, and the other party feel good,( “let’s let them think that they’ve won this, meanwhile we’re sticking it to them over here”).

Compromising – This is what used to happen in politics. People agreed to something that was tolerable to all parties, and maintained some sort of reasonable working relationship. Granted, compromise usually ends up in only baby steps forward, but small steps ahead are better and no progress at all, or backwards movement.

Collaborating – This is the elusive “win-win” situation. The value in collaborating lies in capitalizing on diversity – diversity of ideas, of approach, of notions of success.

Conflict Can Have Benefits

Try to look at conflict beyond simply being something that you want to go away quickly. You might see that it has some benefits. Here are some of them:

  • Conflict checks our complacency and self-satisfaction simply by making us aware that problems exist.
  • Conflict reveals diverse perspectives, getting beyond an either/or worldview, challenging our assumptions and leading to more comprehensive solutions.
  • Conflict resolution requires you to tap into your creativity. You learn about yourself, and about others, leading to greater emotional intelligence.
  • The process of resolving conflict often opens up new communication avenues and processes. In fact, lack of communication is often the source of conflict.
  • Successful conflict resolution can build trust. When people feel heard, and when their opinions are recognized and validated, the fair treatment they received makes them more likely to come forward in the future, before conflicts have an opportunity to fester.