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The Product Manager’s Guide to Effective Argumentation for Consensus Building

May 2024 2 min read

As a product manager, your ability to argue effectively and debate well is crucial. Whether you're pitching a new feature, defending your product strategy, or navigating team conflicts, mastering the art of argumentation can make all the difference. Here’s how you can hone these skills to build consensus and steer your product towards success.

Know Your Audience

To argue and debate effectively, you need to know who you’re talking to. Ask yourself:

  1. Who is your recipient?
  2. What is important to them?
  3. What are their interests, desires, hopes, fears, and dislikes?
  4. What are their opinions, biases, background, and professional knowledge?
  5. What beliefs or mistakes do they hold?
  6. What objections might they raise during the discussion?

Understanding your audience allows you to tailor your arguments to resonate with them and address their concerns directly.

Why Avoid Manipulation

While it might be tempting to use manipulation to win an argument, there are two key reasons to avoid it:

  1. Short-Term Effectiveness: Manipulation might work temporarily but is unlikely to yield long-term support.
  2. Moral Integrity: Manipulating others is ethically questionable and can damage your credibility.

Overcome the Inertia Factor

People’s beliefs form a complex network where some are deeply ingrained (core beliefs) and others are more flexible (peripheral beliefs). Changing core beliefs is challenging because people often accept false information as true and vice versa. Recognize this rigidity and plan your arguments accordingly.

Understand Motivated Reasoning

Our desires, fears, biases, and expectations shape how we perceive information and arguments. This unconscious bias, known as motivated reasoning, means we often defend our beliefs rather than seek the truth. Julia Galef likens this to a soldier’s mindset, where ideas are seen as allies or enemies. Instead, adopt a scout’s mindset—be curious and open to contrary information. Ask yourself: Do you want to defend your beliefs or understand reality more clearly?

Convince Your Opponent

To persuade effectively, you must:

  1. Understand the network of your opponent’s beliefs.
  2. Acknowledge the rigidity of this network.
  3. Identify their core values and beliefs.
  4. Focus your efforts on addressing these central points and core elements.

Four Components of Persuasion

  1. Clarity: Be clear to avoid misunderstandings.
  2. Understanding: Grasp your opponent’s logic and core beliefs.
  3. Meaningfulness: Explain and justify your points, placing facts in a broader context. Think systematically and holistically.
  4. Openness: Honestly express your attitudes, interests, fears, and desires. Be genuine.

Three Debate Strategies by Daniel Cohen

  1. Argument-as-War: There are winners and losers, with high emotions. This often leads nowhere and is best avoided.
  2. Arguments as Proofs: This resembles a scientific discussion, evaluating the strength of arguments, confirming premises, and justifying conclusions.
  3. Arguments as Performances: These debates are conducted before an audience, who learn from the process and judge the arguments like a jury. This is a rhetorical model.

By mastering these strategies and understanding the psychology behind argumentation, you, as a product manager, can build stronger cases, forge consensus, and drive your product in the right direction. Effective argumentation isn't just about winning—it's about understanding, communicating, and leading.