Let's talk about the "Straw man"

Let's talk about the "Straw man"
Photo by Tiziano Brignoli / Unsplash

Today I would like to talk about something related to communication and conflicts.

Imagine the following situation.

You (person A) say on a meeting exactly this: “I think that we should not focus on that feature right now, but probably in the next sprint”.

When I hear your argument, I could answer something like “So … I don´t agree that this feature is not important for the project at all and I can give you several reasons on why this is not right” … and I could even continue in the future like “It is really surprising that (person A) doesn´t share our vision on the direction that we could take for that product because I can’t understand why she said this feature is not important at all”… and even further two days later … “I guess it is obvious for all of us that (person A) is not aligned anymore with us if she thinks that the feature that we discussed two days ago is not an important one for the future of the project because I actually think that …”.

I know it is a simple and maybe obvious example, but … did you see what just happened? What I just did is “twisting” or “slightly” changing what you said in a first step. That makes it look somehow similar to what you actually said and I atack your argument. But it is not true, I am actually attacking or trying to refute something that is actually a different proposition. I am just placing a “straw man”, a fake version of your original statement that I can then refute in a more easy way.

You (person A) explained that this should not be our focus now, but I am actually refuting the idea of you saying that this feature is not important at all. Sound similar, but it is not the same.

This is actually a form of a fallacy and it is called the fallacy of the “Straw man”.

Have ever seen that in the past?

Have you ever been surprised because someone is actually arguing against something that is not really what you said?

And if so … is that person then building a whole house of cards on his original “straw man” about you or your statements?

Be careful if you see this happen in a team meeting, in the written text on social media (sometimes even quoting the text so it seems to be exactly what you said), or in any kind of human interaction. Sometimes is more subtle, sometimes more obvious, but is always a trap for real and healthy discussion and once the straw man is placed, if you can’t clarify that fast, you never know where the subsequent argumentation thread can arrive.

Sometimes it will be intentional and other times it will not, but it is important that we, as communication and human interactions are things that we work within our daily job are able to identify when it happens.

If you are interested in observing that kind of pattern, please watch this video that can give you a better understanding of the theory and different variations on it.