“Steel Man” Your Opposing Arguments

Abhishek Paul
3 min readApr 9, 2018

I am told that I have a tendency to be opinionated (the actual words used were less flattering!). I’ve come to realize that I have been arrogantly shortsighted in my approach. I was more focussed on “winning” the argument and every tactic of mine was designed to prove the other side wrong. I would not listen fully, not ask questions / seek clarity, be impatient to get my point across, etc. The inevitable temper flare ups would occur and more often than not, the discussion would end abruptly — with stereotypes reinforced on both sides.

A more insidious flaw in my approach was that I would pick the weakest point of the other sides argument and use that to beat down their entire case, aka “the Straw Man” approach. I realized that while this might leave me feeling superior/ vindicated, I was also the bigger loser — for my objective was (I now realize) never to win arguments but rather to uncover the truth! With this perspective, winning arguments shouldn’t even be a criteria.

I have also been helped in this new approach with a further realization that “I can never change someone else’s opinion, let alone something they strongly believe in”, so I have stopped putting pressure on myself to convince people of my point of view.

With these 2 revised objectives, my new approach borrows a page from Peter Thiel’s playbook called “Steel Man”ing one’s arguments. The philosopher Ravi Zacharias also recommends this modus operandi in his debates. The approach counter intuitively involves making / helping the other side of the argument as strong as possible before attacking it. Seems self defeating right? Why enter into a debate (and I use the word loosely) and then help the other person make better arguments against your own position? But the point Peter and Ravi were making is that when you assume the other party is a genuine seeker like yourself, you should never take advantage of their deficiencies. Rather you help them make the best case possible and then show how your arguments match up. The other party might still be unconvinced, but atleast respects your position better and more importantly respects you enough to continue this discussion later.

“Steel Man”ing involves listening patiently to the other side, asking questions to clarify, finding common points of agreement, not questioning their motives or being prejudiced, accepting flaws / insufficiencies in our own arguments and letting go of the need to appear smart amongst other things.

I have found that this new approach takes conscious effort as my default is to feel the need to win the argument in a single interaction. But when I do follow the more mature approach, I come out of the discussion with greater clarity, confidence and feeling more energized / intellectually stimulated. This is surely a key foundation to continue learning from and leading people with diverse beliefs.

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