Virtual Learning Resource Centre

Clear thinking and speaking

A review and discussion of three books concerned with rational thinking and speaking:

Quick thinking on your feet: Valerie Pierce, Mercier Press, 2003.
Making sense: Philosophy behind the headlines: Julian Baggini, BCA, 2002.
The argument culture; Changing the way we argue and debate: Deborah Tannen, Random House, 1998.


This is a summary of three books to help you think quickly on your feet to produce the best response, to see through the way news is presented, and to find a more fruitful way to debate issues. These books help you recognise and meet the tricks that people often employ to win an argument or produce a response. Thus armed, you will be more effective.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in October 2003)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Quick thinking on your feet

Book cover

Valerie Pierce is an Irish consultant who has created the 'Clear and Critical Thinking' training modules. She has many clients among large business organisations and is also an associate of Ashridge.

In this book she concentrates on the problems that lack of clear thinking often creates in the life of a manager, at meetings, presentations and in negotiations. She warns of the traps into which we may easily fall and helps us to spot them at the time, rather than realising them just as we are going to bed after a hard day. These traps may be deliberately set to manipulate us, or may be the result of genuine faulty reasoning on either or both sides.

We often get thrown off course when presenting an argument, because someone throws in a different argument which may be irrelevant, but sounds persuasive and catches us off guard. Observations like "We tried that years ago and it didn’t work" - one of the so-called killer phrases - may break our flow of thought and throw our well prepared presentation into disarray.

If we can think quickly and clearly we shall spot the irrelevance and say something like "Oh yes, you are right - it didn’t work then, but we are now in 2003 and the circumstances have changed in this and that way, making it essential that we revisit the issue." You have then regained your ground as you create the impression that it would be neglect if some stones were left unturned today, because of past history.

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Passion and emotion

Early in the book Valerie Pierce makes clear that it is necessary to distinguish between passion and emotion. "Learn not to get bogged down by emotion, but rather how to get fired up by passion." To feel angry or upset by critics is to lose sight of the objective purpose. Emotion is tied up with your own ego, whereas passion, as she defines it, is a strong belief in the value of what you are doing, irrespective of any attacks on your ego. Focus on the project, not on what people think of you. One of the tricks of opponents is to stereotype you as having certain personal characteristics instead of looking at the issue which is external to what sort of person you are. (eg "Well you always were the sort of person who...")

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Know your purpose

When you make a presentation of any kind, Pierce says that you need to clear the clutter from your mind. Be absolutely clear what it is you want to achieve and ensure that everything you say relates to that aim. One way of doing this is to know the difference between ideas and ideals. An ideal may be a general abstraction like 'success', but she defines an idea as something that is specific and can be put into action. This awareness would cut short many a vague and generalised merry go round.

She also suggests using the 'Five Whys' of Total Quality Management in any context. Clarify your purpose by working towards the ultimate purpose through the contributive ones, asking WHY each time. The following example is my own attempt to understand this technique as it could be used in preparing for an internal business presentation. It is based on a more personal one in her book.

"We need this contract"
"Because it will secure our position in the market"
"Because it will make us a lot of money"
"Because of our reputation"
"Because this will be a unique offering; it can at present be found nowhere else"
"Because our competitors lack our unique competences and particular network."

It doesn’t matter that this sequence is not a logical argument. It has exposed a number of aspects which need to be in our minds as we present our argument. Then we are not thrown off course by interruptions and can identify the central issues, rather than peripheral ones. Having thought it through we recognise that perhaps the key matter to be addressed is the last one.

The five whys help also to get rid of confusion and lead to Pierce’s second maxim - to clarify the meaning of your purpose. To do this gives you a sense of confidence. You are on a clear foundation and you believe in your ability to succeed, absence of which will strengthen the hands of opponents to throw you off track.

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A positive approach

Valerie Pierce deals with the negative thinking which can derail a project. See it as a challenge and let it lead to an opposite, like the police force which found that when they were on the track of the burglars they, not surprisingly, always ran away. So the police set up a decoy shop and let it be known that ill gotten gains could be safely disposed of through this shop. Thus the burglars came to them and were arrested. It means a positive approach, where instead of being overwhelmed by negative thinking, we use it as a focus leading to overcoming the problem. It means a 'can do' approach where obstacles are to be turned into solutions. I am also reminded of the saying that it is often easier to say sorry than ask permission.

I had been reading the above section in her book, and as the beautiful summer weather was continuing, my wife and I decided to go to a delightful open air restaurant about 30 kilometres from where we stay when I am working in Prague. We had been there on the previous two days. When we arrived we were told by the entrance attendant that it was closed for a wedding. To his surprise I thanked him and continued to the restaurant. They confirmed that it was closed. However I pointed out that this was our third visit in three days and that we had come specially from Prague. A short consultation and we were told we could stay. We ate and worked at the table for three hours, with even a piece of wedding cake being sent to our table by the bride and groom. I attributed this success to Valerie’s book and her maxim "When you think you cannot achieve something, ask yourself: Why not?".

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The ten tricks of manipulation

The middle section of the book concerns the ten tricks of manipulation which people introduce into debate. Ability to recognise these is a key to thinking on your feet.

  1. Someone attempts to exercise a false authority over you. Someone who has some claim to authority as the boss or an expert, denies what you are saying without providing evidence, on the basis of tradition, group power or name dropping of other authorities. "We’ve always had that wall painted white", but that’s to be received not as a reason, but nailed for what it is, a fact and not an argument. If you don’t spot that you may be intimidated. You shouldn’t argue with it; you should not say 'yes but'; rather 'yes and'. For example: "Yes it has and if we change it, it will give us a new look and fit in with our new corporate image". You have added to their comment and not merely contradicted it.
  2. You may feel fearful, uncertain or doubtful. Many advertising statements are designed to create these emotions. The old IBM slogan 'Nobody ever got sacked for buying an IBM' was such a case. It was aimed to make managers responsible for such decisions feel nervous. It implied, but did not say, that some one who went against it just might get sacked. No evidence was given for IBM superiority. IBM didn’t have to prove anything and the intended audience couldn’t disprove it. Similarly there is no logic in lottery statements that "$3M to be won - it could be you"; more likely it won’t be, but there is no proof anyway. "I know you are worried about these proposals, but can you take the risk of not carrying them out?" Again fear is replacing argumentation. It could be met by: "I take your point, but what is the evidence for the risk. How do you quantify it?". The ball is then back in their court.
  3. Someone is abusive to you. This centres on your ego if you fall for it and you lose track of the rational argument. A colleague interrupts your flow to say you are always on the defensive. The thing to do is ignore it, deal with it humorously, or say "We can talk about that later, but for now the issue we have to address is... Getting back to the issue is the important thing."
  4. They stereotype you. This differs from abuse in that no specific character trait of yours is being attacked, but rather a factor like age, gender, profession, position or experience, where you can’t be expected to know what you are talking about. "We all know that engineers think like that..." No attempt to deal with the issue, just implying that your idea can’t be right because of the category to which you belong. Nothing to do with the power of your argument. If you defend yourself they seem to have gained their point. So get straight back to the issue: "Be that as it may, we have to decide...."
  5. They win an argument not by proving they are right, but by emphasising how wrong you are. Someone who is out of sympathy with your idea, spots what he believes is an inaccuracy in some of your figures in a document. The focus then moves off the real issue into attack and defence, explanation and counter explanation. You are seen to be wrong on one thing, therefore your whole explanation is flawed. There is no disproof of your ideas, only an attempt to create doubt and mistrust. You should agree to get the figures checked, "but meanwhile can we get back to the point that needs to be resolved and look at all the other reasons for and against my proposal." You thus take back control.
  6. You are accused of causing problems. This is the idea often put forward that when you did A, it was followed by B; therefore your action caused the second event. But sequence doesn’t imply that the first thing caused the second. There is a Latin tag which describes it: "post hoc ergo propter hoc" (after that, therefore because of that). You keep calm and simply ask how they make the causal connection. What is the link between A and B?
  7. People play with words in such a way that you may be deceived into thinking they are setting out a good argument. It sounds plausible. Each statement sounds right but somehow they don’t feel as if they add up. You need to put them into a syllogism and if one of the terms are wrong then the conclusion will not follow. For example: 1. Only man is a rational animal. 2. A woman is not a man. 3. Therefore a woman is not rational. The fallacy lies in that the first statement is about the human category not gender. The second statement is about gender. This means that the first and second statements are addressing different subjects and can’t lead to a conclusion. But in the cut and thrust of debate it is easy to fail to notice the inconsistency. It sounds good. You might have to say, "Wait a minute! Let’s look at those statements slowly and see if they do follow." Perhaps you will rephrase whatever has been said to show the fallacy.
  8. You are being pushed into choosing between two extremes, neither of which you have espoused. Politicians often employ this trick. "Either you are on our side in the fight against terrorism or you are with Al Qaeda". It is an assertion with only two alternatives. You could be opposed to the Coalition methods without siding with the terrorists. But people are often taken in by this kind of assertion. Another example; "Are you part of the problem or of the solution here?" This is setting up a dilemma by an either/or approach. You may need to say: "I believe the situation is more complex than that; this is not an either/or situation. We need to look at all the options."
  9. They try to seduce you with a great story, example or analogy. These can be powerful rhetoric, but we may be so attracted by their glitter that we fail to notice their irrelevance. "No one would think of interfering with an athlete on the track. So why should governments intervene in the economic processes?" What about Enron, World.Com and exploitative practices? The analogy doesn’t cover the activities of business. You just have to highlight the false comparison and move on.
  10. They keep repeating the point without giving any justification for it. Statements are made again and again without any attempt to justify or prove them. Often they are repetitive in themselves, eg, "You can have too much of a good thing". This says nothing, because by definition too much is bad. So if someone uses it in argument against something you are suggesting is good, ask them how much is too much and to be specific about what they mean. So again it is not a matter of contradicting them, but simply asking them to be specific. Then you go on with the issue that you are there to deal with.

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The final section

The first and second sections of the book end with three guidelines:

  1. Clarify your thoughts on what you want before your discussion with others.
  2. Note tricks of manipulation that occur - at the time when they occur.
  3. Write your own success stories down to build up your confidence.

There is a third section which belongs to the reader and assists in the last point above. It lays out situation categories and gives you space to record your experience and how you handled the problem. This section has some input which is associated with the kind of experience as you record it. You use the 65 pages of this part as the situations occur in your business or private life and they will consolidate what you have learned from the first two sections of the book.

The summary I have given above is obviously restricted. I have not had space for the useful examples that Valerie Pierce gives. I have just tried to distil the essence, leaving you to read and absorb and apply the 127 pages of the first two sections which I have compressed into about five.

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Making sense - philosophy behind the headlines

Bookcover: Making sense

The second book in our sequence on clear thinking covers similar ground to that of Valerie Pierce, but from a more specifically philosophic perspective. It will help us to carry out the suggestions of the first book by giving us a deeper understanding of what constitutes proof of anything. It relates philosophy to the concerns of real life. It exposes the mistaken assumptions which often lie behind our assertions and the way in which terms are bandied about without clear definition to create prejudice, and deductions are made which do not necessarily follow.

It is not always realised that philosophy is concerned with questions of a general nature which cannot be settled by mere investigation of the facts. Its emphasis is on "intellectual analysis, using as its primary tool, rational thought". The author says that though philosophy has no monopoly of rationality, its emphasis and reliance on sound reasoning and its examination of the principles of sound reasoning give it value in real world debate. In line with Valerie Pierce, Julian Baggini points out that "the ability to see the form and strength of an argument can prevent us from being confused or misled by those who know how to manipulate us." "If we act purely out of our instinct or on our emotions, we are very unlikely to make the right decisions" on the issues of the day.

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What is truth?

The issues Baggini deals with are not specifically business ones, but they involve the same kind of elements that are present in determining the issues managers regularly face. So many business decisions purport to depend on having the facts. "We need more information" is a frequent cry. We need to know the truth of the situation; we develop our success on the basis of knowledge; knowledge management is a frequently used phrase to describe the key activity of business. Many misunderstandings in business arise because we are not clear what we mean by knowledge and truth. Philosophy is much occupied with defining such terms as truth and knowledge, and without becoming academic philosophers it is useful to learn a little from them.

So Baggini introduces us to such definitions. He tells us about the realists who say there is such a thing as truth out there, if only we can get at it. On the other hand non realists say that truth is relative and that your truth may be different from mine. Now it is true that people’s interpretations and perceptions may vary, but somewhere there are some facts.

We are given an example. A non realist might say that Columbus did not discover America; the American Indians who already lived there had long since discovered it. So we need to redefine. The truth that America existed was always true, but one lot - the Spaniards - didn’t know and the others - the Indians - did. So Columbus discovered a truth which was unknown in his society.

So we get competing truth claims. Often we cannot be sure who is right, but we should not give up the quest; the truth exists somewhere and some things are false. This is true for everyone. To say that a certain approach suits me, which might not suit you is not the same as saying that my truth is different from your truth.

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What is knowledge?

Then there is a lot of argument about what is knowledge. Knowledge is what may be known beyond reasonable doubt. We have to act on that, even though totally doubtless proof may not be available. Philosophers help us when faced with alternative explanations, alternative versions of knowledge, by saying that we should choose the version of knowledge which has the best explanatory power, and is the most economic fit of facts. 'Occam’s Razor' is a famous example of this. Expressed by a modern example it means that if you saw a bullet hole in a window and a bullet opposite embedded in the wall, it is more reasonable to assume that one bullet caused the hole in the window, than to say two bullets were fired and went through the exact same point in the window, or even less likely, that a hundred bullets had been fired through the same spot.

This may seem all rather silly, but so often we do hear complex theories spun in the effort to blame or defend someone in the decision process, by use of conspiracy theory. For most applications of conspiracy theory to work, a vast network of people and circumstances have to be assumed as coming together cooperatively, with an enormous number of coincidences and, above all, only a few actual facts on which to base the assumptions. Yet the press thrives on such theories and people lap them up.

Julian Baggini suggests that intellectual modesty is called for. We need to beware of assuming that we and we alone have the truth and that our knowledge can be proved beyond all doubt. He says, "All we can do is to reason carefully about what the evidence suggests and reach our conclusions accordingly, always mindful that we could be wrong." This does not mean that truth exists only in the eye of the beholder, for otherwise all intelligent discourse would be at an end. And if we cannot find final proof of our knowledge, it still remains that some beliefs are better supported by argument and experience than others.

Speaking of how to approach the news (which includes business news and general news which has repercussions on business), Baggini suggests that there is something that we rightly call the truth, even if it is not quite what realists take to be truth, and that our knowledge of this truth is fallible and uncertain. "It is harder to struggle to make sense of the news following this path than it is to suspend judgement or dogmatically cling to a fixed viewpoint. But it is, I believe, the only philosophically justifiable way to proceed."

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The right to privacy

The rest of the book looks at issues that are in the news and tries to apply his approach to them. Thus there is discussion of how far what people do in their private life ought to be of public concern and when punishment is appropriate. The discussion involves consideration of terms like rights, responsibilities, justice, fairness, freedom.

As well as being of concern to all citizens there is relevance to employment policy and under what circumstances people should be dismissed for their moral behaviour. What business we are in may also be affected. Tobacco firms justify their product on the grounds of freedom of people to take what pleasure they choose. Hitherto, governments have accepted this, except in some cases where passive smoking is seen as harmful to others.

Words like 'significantly' come into the consideration; if the effect on others is significantly harmful then it will be a public issue. Businesses have to think about these issues. Likewise in dismissing employees. Should an employee be dismissed for reckless driving if their job is antique restoration? However, it might be appropriate if they are a travelling salesperson, where the ability to drive safely is a prerequisite for the job.

Such issues cannot be decided by off the cuff answers. Should we punish people (including employees) for doing things which we consider are morally wrong or should we get involved only where harm to others is involved? And is offending people the same as harming them? Should we discipline employees because certain misdemeanours suggest lack of 'character' and we feel we need people of character in our highly confidential business. But what is character? You see we have to ask questions all the time and never let unquestioned assumptions rule our actions.

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Political issues

The chapter on politics from a philosophic point of view also has relevance to the responsibilities of managers and their role in company politics. The need for pragmatism is inevitable. This leads to seeking the greatest happiness of the greatest number according to Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy. In absolute terms this may not be the most moral approach. Judgement can be difficult. We may as managers have to endure things of which we do not approve morally for the greater good of maintaining a satisfied workforce, who might resent what they might regard as intrusion into personal life.

Freedom is a much vaunted term in the political scene. We also, in modern management thinking, seek to empower people, give them freedom to show initiative and be free of excessive control. Our handling of this will mirror the problem in the wider political sphere. There is a difference between negative freedom and positive freedom. Isaiah Berlin defined negative freedom as freedom from interference, oppression and restraint - the absence of limits. Positive freedom is freedom to do things, such as work in a particular field or develop your potential. But it too has its limits. The environment into which people are born may prevent them from realising their potential. People development in companies also experiences similar limits.

We may have to pay taxes, an incursion into our freedom (negative) in order to provide more positive freedom to the more unfortunate members of our Society. This lies behind the debate on equality of opportunity for everyone, on the one hand, and, on the other, the reduction of State interference in our lives. We can’t have either to perfection. Politics is largely about balancing the two. And within the business enterprise we find a microcosm of these same issues.

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International issues

The book has a chapter encouraging the philosophic approach to the wider issues of international policies, especially in relation to war and peace. The approach is the same: don’t make unfounded assertions; don’t assume that there are only two alternatives when considering a course of action; clear thinking is required in defining things like the national interest and the need to punish evil leaders, even if their subjects have to suffer as well. Business readers may not wish to read all the chapters such as this one, but if they do they will find their development of a sound philosophic attitude to their own concerns will be enhanced. And of course a business manager is still a citizen who needs to be informed.

So there is a chapter on when war is justified and how leaders get their citizens to support what they characterise as a just war. How to think clearly in the face of propaganda and spin is discussed. In matters of war and peace leaders dress up rhetoric as if it were sound argument. This is because they need "to stir their citizens more than they need to make logically valid deductions". Business readers will see applications in their own field. One phrase which has wide application is that philosophic thinking can "lay bare and examine the principles and justifications invoked to support" a course of action.

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Thinking about science

Two chapters look at the popular view of science in general and specifically in relation to the environment. Science often gets the blame for the use that governments and business may make or fail to make of its findings. Scientists often simply present the best evidence available to them. Others make decisions. Scientists are often more tentative than the reports of their activities in the media. Popular views often criticise science as harmful. Emotion runs high on things like genetically modified food and cloning. The people can attack science as the villain of the piece, forgetting that the standards of health and living are immeasurably better than they were a hundred or so years ago.

A mistake in some scientific research gets far greater media coverage than the benefits, as when BSE research laboratories got the brains of sheep and cattle mixed up. Business needs to understand how the popular mind works and how it is manipulated by the media looking for an exciting confrontational story. The chapter ends:

We need to see through the hyperbole of both advocates and critics of science and I think philosophy can help us do this. Philosophy at its best nurtures a healthy, non destructive scepticism, and this kind of attitude towards science will serve to protect us against the excesses of scientism much more than a wholesale anti-scientific outlook.

One of the arguments that can easily deceive people is the cry that many things that happen as a result of science and technology are not natural. This is a largely irrelevant argument. If we had no interference with our environment or development of it we would still be living in caves and hunting with flint arrows. A more comprehensive view of nature is required. Beavers tamper with nature by building dams; humans do the same on a larger and more destructive scale. But it is not axiomatically wrong and has to be the subject of careful reasoning, rather than emotional slogans. This thinking will compare the advantages with the disadvantages and seek to balance them.

The author points out that value laden language often gets in the way of clear thinking about the environment. GM crops are said to contaminate neighbouring fields. If the word cross-pollination were used, it would not have the same pejorative implication, yet cross pollination takes place all the time as part of the natural evolution of plants. Similarly the word 'exploit' is used disapprovingly. The human race has always exploited nature for its own purposes, but will normally use words such as 'use of', 'development', with less value laden significance. We need to be aware of the way in which words are used to create prejudice, even if on rational grounds we come to decide that the dangers, for example, of GM, outweigh the benefits.

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The values by which we live

The chapter on cults and religions may have less direct interest for business people in their position as managers, but it is still provocative of thought about values and the way in which prejudice, dogmatism, group thinking and the desire for certitude get in the way of clear thinking. The main concern of this chapter is the difference between a religion and a cult. If you have a religious faith you will be challenged by this chapter to place it on a rational footing.

I did think that the author was a little unphilosophic in saying that faith is always non rational. I know many people who can give a well reasoned account of why they have a personal trust in the being we call God. Of course it is not beyond all doubt, but as we saw earlier, nothing is. And part of the rationality of such faith is to recognise the limits which are encountered when the finite tries to comprehend the infinite.

The chapter discussing the building of the Millennium Dome in London at great cost raises issues such as should public money, even if raised by the National Lottery, be used for entertainment and aesthetic purposes, when more hospital beds and better railways are needed. Public activity is all about balancing the whole range of human need for a full and satisfying life and the discussion here leads on to the general consideration of the value of philosophy. (Some business schools, eg Dartmouth and Aspen in the United States, actually include short courses on philosophy and other humanities for managers, to expand their range and clarity of thought).

So Julian Baggini writes:

The practical need philosophy helps meet is the need to think clearly and better. Philosophy can provide a very stringent training in what has come to be known as 'critical thinking'. Studying the structure of arguments and the nature of deduction, for example, in a highly theoretical and precise way is an excellent way to sharpen your mental skills.
Thinking philosophically helps us to draw the right conclusions from evidence. It can stop us jumping to conclusions. It can help us decide what degree of proof or evidence is sufficient to justify accepting a conclusion. This is a very practical skill, because we have to reach conclusions from evidence all the time. Indeed we are swamped by evidence in the news media. Sometimes we have to draw our own conclusions from it. On other occasions, we have to judge whether the conclusions others have drawn are correct....
Even though the currency of philosophy is reason rather than feeling, it can still contribute towards the satisfaction of our emotional needs. Philosophy’s very important role in this regard is that it can inform our emotions. Take as an example a family of emotions tied in with feelings of blame: resentment, acrimony, bitterness and revenge.

Philosophy and its rationality can help us to see what the true motives of action really are and make us aware of the presence of such emotions. Julian Baggini is honest to suggest that there are other and more direct ways of dealing with many of our problems. He doesn’t over claim for philosophy, but then as he is teaching us to philosophise you wouldn’t expect him to.

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Philosophy and the rest of life

Baggini concludes with a chapter in which he generalises about the value of the philosophical approach. A philosophic life is said to be one in which we use and develop our powers of critical thinking, informed by the insights and arguments of philosophers, to examine the ideas, arguments and options which we confront.

His final observations include:

Sound conclusions are more likely to follow if we prioritise good reasoning. They are less likely to follow if we prioritise the final answer. In our hurry, we are more likely to build our castles on erroneous sand.

He speaks of "the importance of dialogue in philosophy. In general we are not very good at seeing what is wrong with our own reasoning" - we are not merely exchanging ideas, but probing them. "The aim is not to quarrel, it is to pursue the truth."

A final thing to consider on the topic of action is that the well rounded philosopher will also learn when it is better to act not on the basis of reason, but on instinct or ‘gut feeling’. Philosophy does not and should not override the survival instinct that makes us flee fires and dodge traffic. In addition to this we will all have at least some aspect of our lives where our non reflective judgement is better than our reflective one, or is at the very least more likely to provide an accurate judgment quicker. For example, if experience shows you that you are good at ‘sniffing out’ a bad deal, then you would be wise to follow your instinct, even if rationally you cannot see what is wrong with it. Reason plays a role here, but that role is to judge what, on the basis of experience, is a more reliable judge: instinct or reason. The non philosophic person is more bounced about by what they read, see and hear, than really in control of their life. As they never step back and analyse what is going on around them, they are doomed always to be reacting to events, rather than really taking control of them. They are easily led astray by persuasive talkers, advertisers and politicians because they have not developed the skills necessary to analyse and judge their arguments.

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The argument culture

Bookcover: The argument culture

The adversarial approach to news

In the third of our books, Deborah Tannen exposes the way in which every issue is handled by the media and by politicians, as the story of a conflict, battle, row or war. She gives many examples, which through the cooperation of journalist Michael Leapman, are British as well as American. Such stories seem to satisfy the general public because they are entertaining and exciting, whereas an objective consideration of the facts is seen as boring.

We live in the age of the adversarial approach. This book will alert managers to the way in which Valerie Pierce’s ten tricks of manipulation are used, particularly by the media. Managers will thus be better equipped to deal with them when they are required to be interviewed by the media, national or local, to explain some aspect of their company’s activities. Tannen does not claim to write a cook book on what precisely to do when faced by such circumstances. That is where the three books discussed in this essay are complementary.

The many examples in the book give scope for managers to apply the principles of the other two books, but this will require a reading of the book itself, as it is impossible to summarise a multitude of mini case studies. The book is, however, easy to read due to its own use of the story telling method. The author adopts a more constructive approach than merely telling one horror story after another. She is seeking understanding, but she can be forthright, where she feels this is warranted.

Deborah Tannen shows how any kind of public discussion tends to be dominated by every issue being made the subject of an adversarial story, based on that selection from the issues which will arouse the biggest fight and thus encourage sales or viewing figures. Words like 'showdown', 'battle for succession', 'Prime Minister and Chancellor in row'; metaphors like 'smashed', 'killed off', 'fighting his corner' 'firing off their views' - all these will frequently appear in headlines and text of the Press.

In her first chapter, Tannen gives an overview of this theme which she sees as characterising the way our society works. 'The argument culture' is her name for the phenomenon which urges us to approach the world and the people in it in an adversarial frame of mind: opposition is considered the best way to get anything done; news is covered by setting up a debate between two people who purport to discuss the two sides of a matter, ignoring the fact that there may be more than two sides, and indeed, as Valerie Pierce’s point No. 8 suggests, a number of options may need to be considered.

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The goal of discussion

Tannen is not suggesting that discussion should be bland and avoid conflict, but that it should be serious, as part of a search for the facts and for the best approach. This is not the prime concern of politicians, prosecuting and defending lawyers or the media. They will select what suits their need to have an argument in the antagonistic sense or to 'win' their case. Thus they misrepresent by emphasis, rather than by direct lies. Context is often disregarded, thereby changing the meaning of what someone said. The goal is not to listen and understand, but excite interest, however much distortion it takes. Irrelevant details are seized upon to make a public figure look foolish or unfeeling. Anything which will sell papers or increase viewing figures will be seen as legitimate.

The message of Tannen’s book is not that we ought to stop arguing and just be nice to each other. "The opposite of the argument culture is not being ‘nice’ and avoiding conflict; it is finding constructive ways of arguing, debating and confronting conflict."

She stresses that she is not against criticism, which has a useful role. "I object only when criticism and opposition become automatic and exaggerated, and fly out of control - as they are doing in our political lives today."

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Being interviewed by the media

Against the background of the other two books, this book will help to alert managers to what they are facing when invited to be interviewed by the media, which is an increasing role of many managers nowadays. So important is this activity that we run sessions at Ashridge for managers who may be involved with the media, to help prepare them for such encounters. They need to be equipped to recognise what is happening before they get pushed into a corner. Tannen’s book therefore complements the other two books by giving many examples of the situations which can arise as part of the adversarial culture. More than ever we need to be able to think clearly on our feet and to think philosophically about statements the media make and questions they ask.

A manager being interviewed needs to be aware of the way in which an interviewer may try to engineer controversy, even where none exists. Knee jerk opinions are sought, rather than considered analysis. Polarised opposites replace exploring, expanding, discussing, investigating and the exchange of ideas. Some of the responses suggested by Pierce may be helpful in diverting the conflict from harming your company.

Tannen speaks of how readers and viewers are diverted from the real issues which need to be resolved, into viewing all public life as some kind of soap opera, as John Birt, former Director-General of the BBC expressed it. He added: "sometimes the Press, broadcasting and Parliament combine in feeding a frenzy, in which it is difficult to exercise cool and measured judgement". Baggini’s book on the philosophic approach aims to inculcate such judgement in face of illogical and emotional thinking.

Martyn Lewis, a BBC newsreader, points to a parallel danger: "We are very good as journalists at analysing failure, but we are not so good at analysing success." This should perhaps find a resonance in business life, where all too often the blame and conflict culture usurp the place of cool and measured judgement. We are all affected by the adversarial culture. The book summary on 'Appreciative Inquiry' with its emphasis on the positive also provides an antidote to the negativity which so often prevails, both in business and general public life.

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Coping with aggression

If as a manager you are going to be interviewed about a difficult situation in which your company is involved, you need to be ready for the methods that may be employed to hinder you from ensuring that facts rather than tricks carry the day. You may not be exempt, as Tannen illustrates, from aggression and personal unpleasantness, with which some elements in the media pursue their quarries, with complete disregard for good manners, courtesy and respect for feelings and any sort of decorum.

Fairness does not enter into the equation. An inadvertent word in response to the bullying of a crowd of yelling journalists and a public figure’s career and contribution to society can be ruined.

An excellent presentation made by a leader at a news conference may be totally ignored because of the answer given to a deliberately mischievous question. A Cabinet member abroad for delicate negotiations on serious matters, will be hounded at a press conference by journalists on some matter back home which is totally irrelevant to the current purposes. We will have seen this for ourselves on television. Some journalists will do this without regard to courtesy to the host country and in total unconcern whether it derails the delicate diplomacy in hand.

This links with the selection of what items are included in a news bulletin. Sometimes merely one sentence on the important discussions of a president of one nation with that of another is almost lost sight of in extended discussion of an off the cuff reply to a journalist’s question which can be represented to his disadvantage and a molehill turned into a mountain.

If attacks on public figures were directed at truly righting some wrong, persistence might be excusable, but when they are designed to create newsworthiness, then attack is being valued and expected by the editors for its own sake. And some journalists have admitted that they actually fear to be objective and say something good about a politician who is under attack. Agreement is seen as boring and the journalist as weak.

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Watch your face!

Watch your facial expression when you are interviewed. Facial expressions are interpreted by commentators as if they had perfect insight into what people are thinking or feeling. Don’t be surprised at what you read the next day about an interview which you thought you handled pretty well.

What did politician Elizabeth Dole think, when she read this in the newspaper, the day after an interview? "For such a political powerhouse, she came across as surprisingly insecure. With strangers, her eyes seek out approval. Her charm is palpable, her graciousness as carefully applied as her glue-gun red lipstick. Yet when a journalist prepares to ask her a question, she tenses up as though waiting for a blow. Her answers are often so resolutely bland as to suggest a terror of revealing anything human." Who can blame her revealing nothing to someone who was out to get her? But some journalists will use spite to compensate for their inability to get the story they wanted and they will manufacture a story which can be neither proved nor denied.

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Politics and the conflict culture

Tannen has a chapter on the way in which national politics are openly conducted in the adversarial style. Some of it is ritual and acts as a safety valve as the opponents even permit themselves a smile at the witty antics of the other. But when it comes to doing the best for the nation one has to ask whether a more serious approach would be to everyone’s advantage, even if less entertaining. In my own experience children have been known to liken televised parliamentary sessions to the monkey house at the zoo (or should it be the parrot house?) Prime Minister’s Question Time in the British Parliament is an exercise in conflict, not a serious effort to seek consensus. Point scoring is the objective, albeit recognised as having an element of comedy.

A viewer phoned into a political chat show about a major political speech. He had been hearing or watching such speeches for 50 years. He complains: "we are not allowed to feel inspired, or appreciate, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power, because before the applause even dies away, we are told what is wrong with it and that it was too dull, or too long, or not inspiring or it didn’t really say anything... and I think this is really detracting from the respect that these things deserve."

Politics have a close relationship to the activity of business, both as creating an environment and in influencing the internal politics of companies. We can get so used to the point scoring approach and non recognition of strength in a different point of view that we often fail to see the value of true dialogue, where divergences of opinion can be harnessed for the common good instead of being destructive of progress.

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Abuses in litigation

In parallel with the conflict mood in society there is the growing recourse to litigation. A chapter is devoted to the hostile way in which it is conducted in America and Britain. It is a prime example of the adversarial way of life. The prosecutors and the defence are bent on winning rather than uncovering the truth. Their questioning of witnesses is unrelenting and tricky, aiming to catch them and demonstrate that they are unreliable. The excuse for this conduct is that they consider they are there to do the best for their client, and any legal method is acceptable.

Justice is said to consist of having advocates for both sides of a question. In other countries a judge directs the fact finding process. In Britain and America, hostile questioning often obscures rather than reveals the true facts. People, unused to the kind of treatment advocates use, buckle under the questioning, become confused or upset and contradict themselves.

Transcripts are given of the questioning of witnesses. One of a rape victim is particularly harrowing, but one in which the defending lawyer was using many of the tricks exposed in Valerie Pierce’s book on clear thinking, such as rephrasing answers to give a different slant and using emotive words; in fact he used almost every method exposed in Pierce’s ten tricks of manipulation and was totally devoid of human compassion. Deborah Tannen suggests that professional lawyers, as well as journalists, do things in their jobs that one hopes that they would not think of doing in their private lives. If criminals go free, it is irrelevant that justice has not been served. The contract to the client has been fulfilled. Thus says a Harvard law professor.

The litigation theme is perhaps thought to be less directly relevant to the problems of the manager, than consideration of the media and of politics. However there are two points of nexus. One is that in business, managers are increasingly likely to be called as witnesses in litigation by clients, customers or competitors and by employees with a grievance. They may also be required to take part in public enquiries, for example on whether monopoly law or environmental legislation is being infringed. In all these cases they may be able to be more effective in court because they are aware of the tough stance that some lawyers employ. It helps to have studied examples of the way in which questions seek to trip the unsuspecting and facts are manipulated. The other two books address the way in which to meet these, but Tannen has more examples.

I would therefore recommend this chapter to managers and another on the way in which technology, especially the use of e-mails, has become a tool of the adversarial culture. E-mails are increasingly admissible as evidence in legal cases and public enquiries (eg the Hutton Enquiry in the UK). One needs to be aware that many things are said on e-mails which people wouldn’t have the nerve to say face to face or even on the telephone. So another avenue for conflict has opened up.

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Concluding comments

I have tried to bring out of the three books reviewed enough to expose the adversarial approach and how to move beyond it to the benefit of our businesses, our personal lives and the good of society by clear, honest and constructive thinking and speaking.

The three books link together in helping to make us more aware as citizens and managers of the need for vigilance in the way we think and speak. My aim has been to help ensure that we learn to spot the deceptions and manipulations that often enter into discussions, with detriment to the way we do business and function as countries and societies.

To get the maximum benefit, the books need to be read in full. But I have aimed to give enough of what I have gained from the books against the background of life experience to help toward a more cooperative way of doing business and running Society.

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