Designing Argumentation

By Diana Montalion

in Argumentation | November 5, 2020


What is argumentation

Whenever we are deciding what to do, but can't be certain about the outcome, argumentation will help us. (Spoiler: we can rarely be certain about the outcome.) When we are deciding what to think or believe, argumentation is a method of inquiry. This inquiry purposefully integrates differing points of view and differentiates between them using sound judgement.

When we engage in argumentation, we are crafting ...

  • the best possible solution
  • under the circumstances
  • when conditions are uncertain.

Argumentation is not arguing, fighting about who is right and who is wrong. It is not persuasion or negotiation. It is not opinion giving. Argumentation is the art and science of supporting claims with strong, sound and cohesive reasoning.

Argumentation is reason giving

How do you discover the best possible solution under the circumstances when conditions are uncertain?

The word "solution" here can be replaced by conclusion, claim, decision, next step, question, experiment, etc. Fundamentally, we create the best possible point of view that will lead us in a good direction. What does "good direction" mean? It depends on the circumstances.

Very few conclusions are Globally and Constantly True. The context in which we form our conclusions gives them meaning. For example, the best possible activity on a Sunday afternoon may not be the best possible activity on a Wednesday morning. Understanding the circumstances for a high-enough level is essential to understanding what "best" and "possible" depend on. What is most valuable at this time, in this situation?

Inquiry is an investment of time. When faced with complex situations, we distill the factors until they become clear enough. We may feel impatient and want to skip ahead because uncertainty makes us temporarily uncomfortable. Confusion is no walk in the park. But to discover "best possible under the circumstances", this distillation must happen.

Weak, unsound or overly simplified solutions are expensive, though they often feel right in the moment. Investing in argumentation practice saves us significantly more time later. The quality of what we build is equal to the quality of our reasoning. When we leave gaps, we must later identify those gaps and clean up the mess we've made.

Argumentation is a means of inquiry

The human mind does not like ambiguity. To avoid it, we are constantly engaging in argumentation, whether we realize it or not. Unfortunately, we aren't good at it. We don't like not knowing, for certain, what is best or possible. We want to make things concrete, nail things down. We believe the pernicious fallacy that there is something, somewhere other than uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a constant. Argumentation enables us to act, while still resting comfortably in the midst of not knowing for sure. And act again, differently, when we understand things better down the road.

Three friends are deciding which movie to watch together. Their aim is to enjoy a movie! They can't be certain which movie they will enjoy most. So, they consider their reasons for choosing one over another.

They decide on Bridesmaids because:

  • none of them have seen it,
  • everyone is in the mood for a comedy, and
  • Bridesmaids has a 90% tomatoes on Rotten Tomatoes.

Perhaps they enjoy it. Perhaps they are disappointed. Perhaps one friend enjoys it and the other two are disappointed. Perhaps the power goes out halfway through and they play cards instead. Regardless, from their point of view, they made the best possible decision under the circumstances despite uncertainty.

Generally speaking, we feel better about negative outcomes when our reasoning was sound. The movie was a worth a try. The focus of argumentation is not perfection - the focus is conclusions based on reasons that are sound, cohesive and trustworthy. Our conclusions might not be right but in the moment, they are usually correct.

Argumentation integrates different points of view

When the three friends gather to watch a movie, they'll likely have differing views about which movie is best. Teams will have differing views about what to build and how to build it. Citizens have differing views about how best to govern their country.

Inside our own minds, we hold conflicting views that can not be easily resolved. We resolve differences by investigating which views are:

  • true
  • based on the strongest reasons
  • a cohesive narrative that supports the conclusion
  • the most relevant
  • the most relevant right now

Ideally, our conclusions integrate the strongest reasons from various points of view. We proactively seek other points of view in order to uncover blind spots by engaging them in argumentation. We support a conclusion, or solution, by interrelating factual, well-considered, and valuable reasons.

Rather than battle each other's ideas, we work together to strengthen our reasons for trusting the solution or believing the conclusion. Together we enable others to follow our reasoning and make up their own minds.

Argumentation enables others to make up their own minds

The artifacts created by argumentation might be written, spoken, whispered, or hidden. They might be models, maps, documents, debates, etc. The most essential thing to remember when creating them is that the goal is not to show the right answer. The goal is not to persuade (or demand) others do as we've concluded. Persuading others is certainly a desired outcome. And we want others to act on our conclusions! We believe they are correct.

But while engaged in argumentation, our goal is only to:

strengthen and show your reasons

Argumentation demands one thing above all else: consent. It is a mutual process of productive discourse. If five people are in a room and one says "I don't care what you say", argumentation can not happen. If one person is making claims from expertise without reasons, argumentation is not happening.

Everyone must invest in, consent to, and engage in the process.

We hope others will come to the same conclusion. When they don't, we want them to contribute stronger reasoning. Dismissing or disparaging someone's thinking is not engaging in argumentation. We can't "fix" bad thinking or overcome willful resistance.

In Agile parlance, everyone is a pig. Everyone needs to practice, especially the people who recommend or discern the best possible solutions under the circumstances.

Argumentation is good judgement

In a perfect world, we always make wise choices. Wisdom is knowledge + experience + good judgement. In tech, we often rely heavily on the first two - knowledge and experience. What is the whiteboard test for good judgement?

Qualities of good judgement include:

  • Open-minded inquiry and curiosity (a closed mind is judging but doing so poorly)
  • Considering others' views and expertise (purposefully gaining a 360 degree view)
  • Prioritizing what to consider when many issues vie for our attention
  • Discerning whether or not this is something to consider… right now

Good judgement is articulating what is valuable. There might be 100 reasons to take an action, we discern which of those reasons matter most, right now, under these circumstances.

What argumentation is not

Fighting

Argumentation is not fighting, power plays, persuasion, politics, winning or playing king of the hill. (It's far more satisfying.) One of the hardest but most essential lessons in argumentation is knowing when not to engage. We waste lots of energy arguing. Argumentation is not arguing. You can not change a mind that has taken the posture: "Change My Mind."

People engaging in argumentation should not need to "run the gauntlet" or overcome every challenge to be heard and understood. Argumentation is respectful listening that presumes most people are sincere and serious in their claims. We will disagree. Disagreement is essential to strengthening our thinking. Too often, we not productively disagreeing, we are disparaging other people's ideas. Many of us are cultivating this cheap and lazy habit on social media (most of us do this sometimes) but it has no place in argumentation.

Argumentation is not superior knowledge. Having superior knowledge or experience does not guarantee your solutions are the best possible under the uncertain circumstances. Knowledge and experience matter. We need to also demonstrate sound judgement.

What matters more in argumentation practice is enabling others to share your conclusions. We apply our knowledge and experience to creating an informed point of view.

In tech, the most common replacement for argumentation is arguing by assertion.

Opinion: "Social media makes our society less safe."  Argument: "Well, I don't think so. It allows people to communicate quickly in times of crisis. 'The Wall Street Journal' reported that, during the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, people in Paris used Twitter to let terror victims know their addresses in case they needed a place to take shelter."

Arguing by assertion

Often, we assert conclusions without the reasons that have convinced us to believe in them. In other words, we are usually giving our opinion. Most comments on other people's thinking argue by assertion. “That’s a bad idea, others have failed doing that.” "This doesn't matter to think about" are generic examples.

In cultures where arguing by assertion flourishes, there are three warning signs:

  • Polarized and circuitous discussion:
    Argument by assertions encourages black & white, “no it isn’t; yes it is” responses. Challenges are given, one after another, circuitously. Reasoned conclusions rarely get built through this type of dialogue.
  • Who replaces What:
    People are choosing who to believe rather than what to believe. Subject matter expertise replaces reasoning with opinion. Tribes form, gossip reigns. The goal of discussion is often to destabilize trust in other's views that don't align with ours, rather than strengthen a view collectively.
  • Reactive rather than proactive:
    Knowledge, power, authority, etc replace reasoning. Which demands constant reactions. People must prove an assertion wrong, especially when it comes from someone considered high status. Failure to do so means the assertion is correct. This is obviously backwards. The responsibility to share reasoning belongs to the asserter. The goal is to enable others to make up their own minds whether or not the assertion makes sense.

In the next article,  Practicing Argumentation, we will demonstrate the argumentation process beginning with this assertion: “Graphs don’t scale”. For the layperson, this means that making too many relationships between data in a system will cause the system to fail when the amount of data grows over time.

We won't decide whether or not that assertion is true. (It depends!) Instead, we will explore how to transform it into argumentation.

Want to talk about designing argumentation?

Mentrix loves to help teams and organizations establish these patterns. 

Diana Montalion

About the author

If you’ve read The Economist, donated to Wikipedia, or contributed to The World Monuments Fund, you’ve interacted with systems that Diana helped to architect. She has 15+ years experience delivering initiatives, independently or as part of a professional services group, to clients including Stanford, The Gates Foundation and Teach For All. She is co-founder of Mentrix Group, a consultancy providing enterprise systems architecture, technology strategy, and content systems development. She also takes meeting notes with a fountain pen and is an aspiring plant chef.

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