Utilise The ‘Steel Man’ Tactic To Argue More Effectively

Utilise The ‘Steel Man’ Tactic To Argue More Effectively

“Straw man arguments” are utilised in debates to undermine the opposition by misrepresenting the case being presented. If you want to take the high road — and debate more effectively in the process — utilise the “steel man” argument.

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A straw man is employed when one side on an argument creates a false narrative and then argues with that, instead of the point a person actually made. “I think the iPhone is actually OK” turns into “Android sux” and discussion falls apart.

The “steel man” is the opposite approach. As writer Robin Sloan explains, the steel man requires a debater to find the best form of her opponent’s argument and then argue with this. Explain what you think your opponent means to them, ask them if they agree this is what they mean, and then argue with that. This is a tougher debate tactic because it allows for fewer shady arguments, but the result is a stance that holds up to scrutiny:

There are two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice takes the podium, makes her argument. Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarise Alice’s argument to her satisfaction  —  a demonstration of respect and good faith. Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument  —  and then, when he’s finished, Alice must summarise it to his satisfaction.

You could argue that this ultimately boils down to “listen to the other side”. You can’t effectively employ a steel man argument if you don’t understand the opposition. However, finding common ground first and offering counter information second may be more helpful in persuading your audience, if not your opponent directly.

The steel man of #GamerGate [Medium]


  • Hmm. You should never spend too much time in a debate summarising your opponents argument – that’s their job. You can use a “steel man” version of one of their points specifically to rebut, but you’re better off using their exact wording.

    • Red, I agree with your post in the context of a formal “debate” (two sides, audience, moderator, judge/panel &/or audience voting), with both sides playing to win.

      However (and I interpreted as such from reading this and the original article), one can have a “debate” &/or “argument” (online, in public – even in court!) where the object of the exercise is to get to the “truth” of a matter.

      Yes, a group or individual may ‘win’, but the real beneficiaries are all participating.

      It is in this environment that the “Steel Man Tactic” would be most successfully employed.

      • To see the best example of “Straw Man” arguments, simply watch Question Time from the House of Representatives…..

  • Agree with this tactic … one I use at work all the time.

    Smart people can see straight through straw-man … and it’s easy to shoot the other side down by forcing them to admit they’re missing the point or twisting the argument and so on.

    Dealing with each point they originally made and rebutting it robustly is great. As eventually any flaws in their premise is easily revealed. Helps to make sure you have your facts absolutely solid first and can anticipate their mistakes/misconceptions.

    Logic wins too. Boil everything down to bare “first principles”. Makes it harder for opinion to get in the way of facts.

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