These days, it seems like everybody has an argument for or against something. The art of debate, which is thousands of years old, was a major part of the robust democracy fostered by the ancient Greeks. These days, understanding the art of debating is more important than ever, especially when you’re studying business English in an effort to improve your career.

Lively debate is a good thing, and successful businesses and organizations rely on it. However, for every good argument you may hear, there are probably five illogical ones being shared somewhere in the world. You don’t have to go far to hear information that you know is wrong; just log on to Facebook and start reading!

When you’re presented with an argument you know is wrong, you’ll want to refute it. The word to refute, is a word reserved for the act of proving someone’s argument to be wrong or false. There are three basic strategies for refuting arguments, and they are:

Like every tool of persuasion, these strategies can be used to refute any type of argument in any situation, including political debates at family gatherings or arguments in Facebook comment sections.

Refuting With Evidence

Evidence is usually the most effective way to change someone’s mind about an issue. Let’s take a look at a very common subject of debate among professionals:

“Working from home is bad for productivity.”

You could argue the following:

“According to this study from Harvard Business Review, remote workers are actually more productive than their counterparts who commute to the office.”

Harvard Business Review is a trustworthy source, and since you provided the link to the article, there’s no logical reason why the person you’re speaking to won’t believe it. However, these days, evidence isn’t always enough to convince someone that an argument is true or correct. You may even be thinking “but I see people disregard evidence all the time.” And you know what? You’d be right. They do!

However, that doesn’t make your evidence any less right, and it doesn’t make them any less wrong.

There’s actually a term for the psychological habit of ignoring evidence that challenges an established belief: it’s called “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias refers to a person’s refusal to accept evidence that contradicts their view, as well as their tendency to only accept evidence that supports their view. So, how do you overcome it? You can’t— they have to overcome it themselves. The trouble is, most people who suffer from confirmation bias have no desire to do this.

Refuting With Logic

If a rebuttal based on evidence doesn’t work, a logical argument is the next…well, logical step.

Logic refers to the rules that help you recognize good reasoning and bad reasoning. Here’s a very basic example:

  1. Someone ate the last cookie.
  2. The only person in the house was Enrique.
  3. Therefore, Enrique ate the last cookie.

Most arguments require a more sophisticated logical process. Let’s try to use logic on the argument we heard in part 1: “Working from home is bad for productivity.”

We can logically refute this by saying:

“If working from home is bad for productivity, how do you explain the fact that we’ve done our jobs successfully from home for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic?”

Refuting By Minimizing

Finally, minimizing refers to the act of acknowledging the speaker’s statement as true, but downplaying the size and scope of it. Here’s a simple example:

“You’re right when you say that Arizona is hot, but since there’s no humidity, it’s not that bad.”

Let’s try this with the example from the last two sections. We could argue that working from home could possibly result in a loss of productivity, thanks to technical solutions like Zoom and Slack, these losses are easy to avoid.

The problem with minimizing is that it is often deceptive. In the wrong hands, minimizing can be used by abusive partners or managers to downplay the effects of their abuse. The study of persuasion is full of examples like this! Remember, the strategies of persuasive language are not inherently good or bad. Like any tool, the positive or negative effects of minimizing depend on the situation they’re used in and the intent of the person that uses them.

What Not To Do

There are a lot of strategies that are either designed to confuse or distract people from the real issue at hand. These strategies are called fallacies, and can sink your argument if the other person is paying attention.

The most common fallacy we see on social media is the ad hominem attack. This refers to name calling or attacking the character of the speaker, rather than addressing their actual point. Here’s an example:

“Maria says climate change is real, but since she’s just a student, she probably doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Maria being a student has absolutely no influence on her argument being right or wrong, and just makes her opponent look petty. When arguing, avoid name-calling at all costs.

When They Still Don’t Get It

Confirmation bias, fallacies, and fake news have created a world where people don’t respond to evidence or logic as well as they used to. This can be very frustrating, especially when the person you’re arguing with is a friend or family member.

On this point, there’s an old saying that I learned during my teacher training that goes like this:

“You can explain it to them, but you can’t understand it for them.”

At the end of the day, you have to know when to walk away from an argument.

If you’re interested in the art of persuasion, debate, or charisma, Verbalize Now has you covered. Unlike many other online business English schools, we do more than teach you grammar and vocabulary. We can elevate your level of business English by making you a more persuasive, charismatic speaker. Leaders know how to get their point across— and Verbalize Now can teach you how!