One-Sided vs. Two-Sided Arguments

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When presenting your point of view, should you adduce only the arguments in your favor, or those opposed as well?

There are several good reasons for presenting a one-sided argument. The first reason is focus; it’s so hard enough to maintain attention for very long in these distracted times, so you want to make your point quickly and then offer only the information you need to bring the point home. Why confuse matters by bringing in contradictory information? In this way, you have the best chance to maintain clarity and conciseness, which are both important factors in credibility. Second, if you’re selling something, it’s your professional obligation to represent your idea in the best possible light – let your competitors make their own argument. Third, why risk educating your listeners about alternatives they may not have considered?

While these are powerful arguments for leaving out contradictory information, they all have weaknesses when examined more closely. Showcasing alternatives can actually clarify matters and shorten your argument, because facts and evidence make most sense when seen in comparison to existing information. Besides, while clarity and conciseness are important to credibility, confidence tends to trump both, and what shows more confidence than not being afraid to discuss alternatives? Second, your competitors will make their best possible argument – when you’re not there to refute it. By bringing up their points before they do, and then refuting them, you can steal their thunder. It works just like an inoculation: by exposing them to a weaker version now you make them more resistant to the later hard-sell. Professionalism also implies objectivity in service of the end client, in this case your listeners. Finally, if your listeners are smart and truly care about the decision they are going to make, they will seek out every possible alternative they can anyway.

But the best reason to use a two-sided argument is that it has been shown in many studies to be the most effective for an educated and involved audience, if done right. A 1991 paper by Mike Allen analyzed the results of 26 studies that compared the effects on attitude change of three different approaches:

  • One-sided arguments
  • Two-sided arguments, in which counterarguments were listed
  • Two-sided arguments, in which counterarguments were listed and refuted

They found that the least persuasive messages were two-sided with no refutations. Second were one-sided arguments. The most persuasive were those in which the speaker listed counterarguments and then refuted them. As the authors say, “Empirically, the order of the most effective messages should be two-sided with refutation, one-sided, and two-sided with no refutation.”

Think about what that means for a minute. When you’re trying the hardest to get your message across by focusing only on the strengths of your own arguments, when you’re most passionate and enthusiastic about your own position, you are not as persuasive as when you give some air time to the other side. How could that be?

Put yourself into the audience’s perspective for a moment. You are an intelligent, well-informed individual who has sat through hundreds of persuasive presentations. There are two dynamics at work when you’re listening to someone trying to influence your decision. First, your BS detector is fully armed and active, so whenever someone tries to sell you, your mind automatically pushes back, searching for its own counterarguments if none are given. Second, one-sided, “no-brainer” arguments subtly imply that there is no decision to be made, which robs you of your power to choose.

So, it’s generally good practice to include contradictory information in your communications, but there is a step missing from what we’ve discussed so far. I don’t believe it’s enough to simply list and then refute counterarguments – that’s a negative argument at best. You have to bring your point home with positive arguments in favor of your position. That’s when you can pull out all stops, speak with enthusiasm, conviction, and even passion about what you see as the way forward.

By doing this, you come across as someone who not only cares deeply about what you believe in, but as someone who has achieved that caring through fair-minded and intelligent consideration of the facts. What can be better for credibility than that?

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