Practicing Argumentation

By Diana Montalion

in Argumentation | November 17, 2020


How do you  join the constantly emerging dialogues that shape our future? How do you provide integration leadership, facilitating dialogues that improve outcomes? 

The short answer is: you practice. You establish best practices, alone and collectively, then follow them. Like all communal best practices, their power to improve results depends on everyone's willingness to value, champion and adhere to them.

In the previous article, Designing Argumentation, we explored What is argumentation? and What argumentation is not.

In this article, we'll explore:

We listen, to ourselves and others, with the aim of understanding and discovering. We transform what is incorrect, weak or unsound into what is factual, strong and cohesive.

We will transform an assertion into argumentation: “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'll strengthen it.

How to practice argumentation?

Identify the claim

What are you trying to prove? Say it clearly, first of all and explicitly.

It's easy to say that "argumentation begins with articulating your argument." But this is harder than it sounds. We often discover that it's difficult to put our knowing into words, to sum up our claim and lead with it.

After we've identified the reasons that support our claim, we can test it by moving it to the bottom. "Therefore ..." Your conclusion will work either at the beginning or the end if your reasons are sound.

Example A

 To meet our current goal [described], we should not rely on graphs.

Identify the reasons that support it

What are the reasons that convinced you of your claim?

Write them down. The first time we outline them, chances are good they'll be:

  • wrong:  not entirely true or accurate
  • biases:  include emotionally-loaded overtones and opinions
  • missing:  will come from too limited a point of view
  • vague:  won't follow in a natural order

Remember: our minds are not good at this. We often feel sure and solid in our thinking. When we break it down, we often discover ... it needs work. Doing this work is a valuable but humbling practice. Once we experience how quickly our outcomes improve, we'll be more patient with the process.

Strengthen the reasons

Expanding and strengthening our reasons is the core work. This work includes activities like:

Do sufficient research to ensure your reasons are true.

Define any words that don't have a specific or easily-understood meaning. Avoid jargon.

Get feedback from others who understand "the circumstances" to ensure your reasons consider a sufficient scope of inquiry. The reasons may be valid but pale in comparison to other reasons impacting the situation.

Seek other points of view.

Eliminate reasons that don't have substance. If you start with bullshit, you'll end with bullshit. We've been subjected to a constant barage of unsound reasons pronounced as fact through advertising. "Everyone loves Sunny D!" Our minds grab hold of those. Unless you will also prove that everyone loves Sunny D, you can't use that "truth" to support your claim.

Generalizations aren't substance. We see them in political discourse. "You have a patriotic duty to ..." or "God wants us to ..." Unless you will support generalizations, you can't rely on them. Technology cultures have their own brand of political discourse. The values we hold also need to be supported with substance.

Give examples. If you say something is so, give examples that back it up. One example illustrates, two or more support. Ensure that you are comparing apples to apples and describing how they are related. If you use an analogy, you must give specific examples.

Craft passion into reasoning. People are often asserting that what they feel is true. Feelings matter a great deal, emotional impact is important. But feelings aren't, by themselves, reasons. Opinions are thoughts we feel strongly about. We want others will feel the same as we do because reasoning guides them there.

Example B

To develop reasons for To meet our current goal [described], we should not rely on graphs.:

  • Ensure the information on graphs and the technology involved is accurate an up-to-date.
  • Define scale. Define graph.
  • Ensure you understand the circumstances in which graphs will be used and need to scale. What is the value of them, why are they needed?
  • Speak to others with relevant experience, including (if not especially) others involved in the argumentation.
  • Give at least two examples of graphs failing to scale in circumstances that are meaningfully similar to the one under consideration. Demonstrate how they are similar.
  • Examine any strong feelings or opinions, support them with reasons.

Put the reasons in a natural order

Once you have reasons, it helps to put them write them as a short list of statements (or use index cards). Leave out your evidence and explanations for the moment. As bullet points, the reasons should lead inextricably to your conclusion.

The most difficult part of argumentation is inference - making the interconnections between reasons. You may have three or five solid reasons but they don't follow each other. They don't "hang together." As a cohesive whole, they don't support your conclusion. Perhaps there is a missing leap of logic.

This can be surprisingly frustrating and difficult. Ironically, the more you know a conclusion is true, the harder it can be to develop strong reasoning. You just know! Take time. Chances are good the first three attempts won't be strong enough. Get feedback.

Example C

We are considering the use of graphs to solve [describe understanding of the circumstances]

Graphs have been recommended because [describe sincere and serious reason(s)]

The adoption of this technology has caused consistent, unresolvable problems for others in similar circumstances [give two relevant circumstances and show how they are relevant]

Other technologies have solved our challenge better [give two examples]

Therefore, to meet our current goal [described], we should not rely on graphs and explore [alternative].

Note: An argumentational death trap lies here, which is arguing against graphs but leaving the problem they solve unresolved. People are "coming to the best possible solution under the circumstances despite uncertainty." Perhaps no solution is readily available, but an argument that says, basically, "No" will not enable that outcome.

Edit, edit, edit

Be specific. Be concise. Write in a natural language that's friendly to follow. Use consistent terms and don't hide meaning behind jargon.

When we want people to understand and agree, we often create a fog of words. As if more words will produce more understanding. Once our thinking is strong, edit it. Then, edit it again. Then ask someone else to edit. Then edit those edits.

Argumentation can involve a lot of writing, exploring, whiteboarding and research that stays in the background. As a general rule, you'll have 10 or more pages of thinking for every one page after editing.

"If it is to be a minute speech I shall need four weeks in which to prepare, if a half hour speech, then two weeks, but if I am to talk all day I’m ready now." 
-- Rufus Choate, Senator from Massachusetts, 1859

Everybody, all together, from the beginning

We can follow these same practices when working with other people. Working with others is like rowing a boat. You can't get anywhere if everyone is rowing in different directions. Argumentation enables and empowers everyone to row together towards a point of view -- without simply relying on the Captain's commands to provide one.

Everyone doesn't need to agree! Perhaps we are choosing between two totally viable yet contradictory options. That's life, we make those choices everyday. It's more important to practice good judgement together than it is to be right.

Whenever two or more are gathered in argumentation, remember:

  • Listen critically and respectfully, start with "yes, and ..." to acknowledge what's been said.
  • Contribute reasons or evidence related to them.
  • Consider diverse points of view on purpose.
  • Seek to strengthen the conclusion and the reasons together.
  • Examine your feelings and opinions - examine your group's biases.
  • Remember that this will save more time than it costs ... if everyone stays engaged.

But wait, there's more!

We have considered only the basics of argumentation here. There is much more to explore. Arguments about cause (why is this bug happening?), logical fallacies, deductive reasoning, goal-based reasoning (projects!), responding to arguments, what constitutes evidence, etc, etc.

We began at the beginning. The more we practice, the better we get. By learning more, we are forging tools. Tools that create elegant and sound solutions to complex challenges.

Want to talk about practicing 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.

Get Notified

Receive updates with our latest thinking about content systems modernization.