Use the steelman technique to persuade people who disagree with you

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Last updated: January 2019

A man in armor.

To steelman is to create a version of your opponent’s argument that’s even stronger than their own.

If your visitors have objections, you need to present counterobjections. However, it’s not enough to present the counterobjections straight.

The solution comes from two (similar) approaches:

Approach 1: Steelmanning

The philosopher Daniel Dennett outlines an effective process for arguing with someone who has opposing views:

(1) Attempt to re-express the other person’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that they say, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

(2) List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

(3) Mention anything you have learned from your target.

(4) Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

The first step of Dennett’s approach has been called steelmanning. It’s the opposite of strawmanning, in which you misrepresent the other person’s position or argument so you can easily defeat it. In contrast to a strawman, a steelman is an improved form of the other person’s views—one that’s harder to defeat.

Approach 2: Feel–felt–found

Dennett’s approach overlaps with the “feel–felt–found” technique that is taught in many customer-support call centers:

  1. Demonstrate that you understand how the other person feels.
  2. Then, describe how you (or someone else) once felt the same as the other person does.
  3. Finally, describe how your mind (or someone else’s) was changed, and what you instead found to be true.

How to apply the above approaches to conversion

The approaches above may sound subtle, but they are powerful.

In both of them, you don’t just present your counterobjection straight. (You don’t just say, “You’re wrong. Here’s the right answer.”)

Instead, you first demonstrate that you understand the other person’s objection, you demonstrate that it’s valid, and then you explain why your counterobjection is a level of thinking deeper, not shallower, than the other person’s. (You effectively say, “I understand what you think, and why, but if you think further…”) This approach allows the other person to save face and not have to backtrack their thinking (which no one likes to do). At no point are they proven wrong; they just arrive at your verdict through extended thinking.

(Note that you’d get nowhere trying to strawman your visitors’ views. Your visitors would simply think, “You don’t understand me.” Strawmanning only works by misrepresenting a third party’s position. You could, of course, do that with your competitor’s arguments. But that’s not defensible, and the best persuasion is defensible.)

So, if your visitors have objections, don’t just contradict them. And certainly don’t ignore them. Address the elephant in the room. Explain why their current thinking is valid. Empathize with why they were reasonable in arriving at those conclusions. And then show them the additional thinking that leads from their conclusions to yours.

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