What makes an argument difficult

Specialist magazine for the managers of the associations

Argue with a watering can or a scalpel?

Author: Dr. Jens Kegel
Association report 07 | 2014, on October 2nd, 2014

They do it in writing, orally, and all day long without realizing it: Associations argue in order to convince, because they don't want to persuade anyone.

Associations communicate argumentatively, but not only for the sake of argumentation; they pursue tangible goals that are reflected in numbers. In order to achieve this, they have to constantly put forward arguments and sometimes defend themselves plausibly. All of these important actions are tied to language and occur far more frequently than we are aware of. Now there are different ideas of argumentation, some of which are based on classical logic, some are based on the manipulation thesis and some assume that we only argue when problems need to be clarified or the communication partner is to be convinced of something. Not at all. People don't just argue when there are different opinions and understandings of issues. We also argue when it comes to expressing one's own positions and getting others to act or to adopt knowledge. This is exactly the case for associations, because they want to draw attention to themselves and their goals and to assert the interests of the members as plausibly as possible.

Generate consensus

The aim of all reasoning is usually to create consensus. This is established, for example, when the communication partner classifies the content presented as true or plausible and accepts it. It becomes more difficult when it comes to making a statement - together with the person making the argument -
to dispute. This is part of crisis communication, for example.

Communicating associations inevitably always argue when considering this broad conception of argumentation. It should be added, however, that it is not just a question of reaching a rational consensus, but rather of linking this to positive emotions as far as possible. Feelings act as a lubricant and at the same time pave the way for anchoring information permanently in the mind of the target group. Like any communication, this cannot be a punctual and temporary business, but has to be permanent.

Less rational than we commonly think

In the past few decades, psychologists and linguists have taken on our everyday reasoning and found amazing things. All in all, it turned out that in everyday life we ​​argue beyond formal logic and also much less rationally than we commonly think. Here is a summary of the most important results that clever communicators can use:


People have an almost compulsive endeavor to appear and act consistently or consistently, that is, in accordance with previous actions. The benefits are obvious. As with other forms of automatic response, we feel relief. We don't have to weigh things up, make difficult decisions or make a selection of relevant information from the daily flood. This means two things for everyday argumentation: Firstly, the person making the argument should always follow a central, but above all plausible argument. Secondly, this is ideally based on the actions, values ​​and plausibilities of the other.

Social proven

A second, highly effective social-psychological principle in addition to consistency is social reliability. People consider behavior right in a given situation to the extent that they observe that behavior in others. The more people think a certain idea is right, the more the individual perceives the idea as right. People always align their behavior (and also their opinion) with others when they are unsure. This can refer to yourself or a situation. For our argument, this means not to swim against the great current, but to orientate oneself on the behavior and opinions of the opinion leaders or the vast majority. That sounds a lot like mainstream and a lack of individuality, but it's still necessary if I don't want to reach just a small elite.

Plausible and true

In our everyday communication, we also often start from generally applicable sentences and question them little or not at all in terms of their plausibility or their statistically measurable truthfulness. On the other hand, however, because of their apparent generality and “truth”, these everyday wisdoms are well suited when it comes to arguing for an inhomogeneous group.


The process of reasoning, which is the most important cognitive process in arguing, was also examined. Psychology, for example, emphasizes that in reasoning, "thinking on the basis of evidence or on the basis of existing beliefs and theories [leads] to a result" (Zimbardo, Philipp: Psychologie 1995: 369). Here it becomes clear how important the beliefs are

the "opposite side", not primarily those of the association. Inferring from something given or asserted, or inferring, is a process in which people absorb and process information. The purpose of this special type of information processing is either to incorporate new information into existing knowledge systems and to interpret it against this background or to use it to change existing beliefs. In doing so, however, people work as "cognitive misers"; they usually shy away from mental exertion. At the same time, they use “cognitive abbreviations”, that is, they take the shortest possible path that leads to success as quickly as possible (ibid.). In positive terms, one could also say that people are doing things economically here.

Process information

The important learning processes of assimilation (changing or adapting existing information so that it can be inserted into existing schemes) and accommodation (changing the schemes so as not to conflict with new information or other schemes) are not only used in children's developmental stages to the individual to adapt to the environment, but also play a role in adults. With these - in contrast to the child - beliefs and other schemes of world knowledge are already so firmly established that the process of assimilation is preferred to that of accommodation. So people first and foremost try to consolidate their existing worldview and to underpin it with new arguments. The process of selective information acquisition runs parallel to this.

Priority is given to that information, which is taken into account and processed, which supports our (already existing) knowledge and belief systems. When the information we send out to our communication partners is consolidated through continuous and, above all, essentially stringent communication, it is transferred to the communication partner's knowledge system. Which elements were made on the basis of personal experience and which were acquired through communication is becoming increasingly unclear; the borders are disappearing. In this process it is only important that the communicated and experienced knowledge are as congruent as possible, but at least not contradicting one another.

Cognitive bias

A related trait of reasoning and judgment and decision making is known as cognitive bias. This is distorted information processing that leads to inappropriate thinking when people do not (want to) recognize that a strategy that was appropriate in the past is no longer correct for a current situation. Even if new information should actually result in a different approach, we automatically rely on what we have always done - and on the easy way.

In addition, conclusions by analogy are often used, which can also be false conclusions. Thus people often infer internal characteristics from external characteristics. This leads, for example, to the fact that entire branches of industry can exist that are nonsensical when viewed soberly and rationally, such as those that produce symbols of luxury and status.

This correlates with another peculiarity of everyday argumentation. Once a scheme of action has been learned, it is relatively fixed. Once we have engaged in a certain type of action, we tend to continue following the chosen program, even if that program subsequently proves to be quite inappropriate. Associations are therefore well advised not only to offer their communication partners relatively stable schemes of action and information, but also to act consistently in terms of language and argumentation.

If you now look at the form of everyday language arguments, then there are also peculiarities here. Firstly, the individual elements of an argumentation that can be analytically differentiated from one another are often insufficiently marked and therefore sometimes difficult to recognize (assertion, justification, conclusion). Secondly, the conclusion is often placed at the beginning as an assertion and only justified afterwards with the corresponding premises. ("We should finally put this case on record. It takes too much time.") Thirdly, everyday arguments are often more about creating, maintaining or changing the relationships between the communication participants than just substantiating claims. ("It cannot be that we always give in just because the boss wants to push his opinion through.")

Plausible arguments

The core of plausible arguments are the arguments or justifications. Here are the key conditions for plausible arguments: They must be valid, verifiable and true. Opinions from recognized authorities and independent institutions help to support this. Arguments must be suitable as an argument at all. So they should be taken from the core of the argument and therefore not be irrelevant. It is often much better to enrich the strongest argument with many secondary aspects than to pursue different lines of argument -
that just confuses. The fourth criterion, the honest source, is becoming increasingly important. Because today everyone is allowed to publish everything and hardly anyone checks where certain information comes from, you should be careful not to put anything half-silk or half-baked into the world. At some point and somewhere it will be revealed - with often catastrophic consequences for long-term credibility.

If you read it all this way, you might think: For God's sake, stop arguing, that's more difficult than guarding a sack of fleas ... So here are the steps to find convincing arguments that you don't use much anymore can do wrong:

  • Step one: Ask about the intentions, goals, wishes, values, norms and plausibility of the other. We always argue for others, not for ourselves.
  • Step two: Look for arguments, reasons, facts, data that are (probably) plausible for the other person.
  • Step three: Arrange and hierarchize the arguments found and set priorities. Secondary aspects remain in the drawer. They help with crisis communication or when the central argument with its secondary aspects is not enough to convince.
  • Step four: Plan the central or recurring arguments, play them through and, ideally, subject them to a series of tests with the “other side”. You can test different approaches and practice responding to questions and counter-arguments.

Finally, one more important finding that psycho-linguistics has in store for us: People orientate themselves by what they hear first. They align their thinking and subsequently also their actions with what comes first. The central, most important, most plausible, most convincing argument must therefore come right to the front. Then it works with the entire argument.

© 2014 Association report
Published in the Association Report 07 | 2014, on October 2nd, 2014
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