Have you ever been the victim of the Artful Dodge?
Let’s look at a recent and tragic case where an elderly man was discharged from the hospital, sent home and died before he got into his home (see this article).
The Manitoba Health Minister said that they will be reviewing the rules around how taxis help patients into their homes. This is a typical Artful Dodge…what is the issue here, that a taxi driver did not walk the man into his home, or that the hospital missed an imminent heart attack and sent an elderly man home in -40 weather?
The core argument made by the Minister is called an ad hominem argument (Latin for “to the man”), which is where a claim is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the person making the claim. It is a common debating technique, and one which is very difficult to defend yourself against.
While responding to this issue may be a challenge, the first hurdle to cross is realizing that you are facing this sort of situation. Many people’s first inclination is to (defensively) respond, thus starting an argument about something unrelated to the issue at hand.
If you are faced with this argument, generally you should try not to respond to the question, as it just takes you further away from your point. You should call the person on their argument (“that is not relevant”) and then restate your main point, the idea being that you want to discuss the main point and not the irrelevant point.
If you choose to respond to an ad hominem attack, an option is do what Jon Stewart tends to do, which is to accept the attack, embrace it with a self-deprecating joke, and then point out that they haven’t made a real argument: “Yes, I’m an idiot, and yet even I can see the gaping flaws in your argument. So the question is, why can’t you?”*
But what if the person making the ad hominem argument is your boss? What if a new policy is being developed in your area and someone is pushing an agenda you do not agree with? A clever or sassy answer may feel good but might be anything but wise in terms of your career.
So what kid of arguments might you face from your employer when debating, say, a new policy or procedure?
He or she might say “You don’t have the formal training and lack credibility to comment on this issue”, which would be a devastating thing for your boss to say, especially if said in front of others. But there are some good responses that will not get you fired…
- I have X years of experience in doing this work and I feel that I have a good understanding about what does and does not work
- I have an outside perspective on this issue and I think that good ideas can come from the outside
- Has my lack of formal training been an issue in this area up until this point?
Many people shy away from arguments, we have been trained to be polite and to avoid them, and others sometimes use that fact to their advantage. Don’t let them!
First recognize that you are in the situation, and then politely, but firmly, refute the argument. If you can do that, you will have made yourself a more valuable employee, and that will be noticed.