September 18, 2023

What are you arguing about? (There are only three options)

You can argue with your colleague about a new marketing campaign strategy. You can argue with your roommate about who left the kitchen a mess. You can argue with your uncle at Thanksgiving about immigration.

There are a lot of things we argue about. Politics. Manners. Money. Education. Sports. Business strategy. Vacation plans. Dinner plans. It’s one of our fundamental modes of interacting with others. (And if you grew up in a Jewish family like mine, it’s often the main form of communication.)

But despite that infinite list of debate topics, all arguments can fit into just three categories: blame, values, or choice.

Aristotle identified these buckets twenty-four hundred years ago as judicial speech, epideictic speech, and deliberative speech – or past, present, and future. Professor Jay Heinrichs does a great job explaining their importance in Thank You for Arguing. Here’s a bit:

“Why should you care about which question slots into which core issue? It matters because you will never meet your goals if you argue around the wrong core issue… The blame questions deal with the past. The values questions are in the present tense. And the choice questions have to do with the future.”

Arguments of Blame

Blame is where we litigate what happened in the past, good or bad. Who screwed up? Who deserves a promotion? Aristotle calls this judicial speech, as it’s the type of persuasion seen in a courtroom, where judges and juries determine what happened and whose fault it was.

Why didn’t we win the pitch? Who forgot to take out the trash? Should Derek Jeter get all the credit for those World Series rings? Blame is all past tense.

This is a tempting place to go in our arguments, as it’s the most tangible thing to latch on to in our disagreements. But with limited exceptions, it’s not the most productive place to spend our energy. What’s done is done, and finger-pointing after the fact won’t win you the game or make you the sale. Blame very quickly becomes a dead end.

Arguments of Values

Values are how we determine if ideas, people, or things are good or bad. This includes nearly all the hot-button political issues that get repeatedly circulated in our ongoing “culture war,” from abortion, gay marriage, and immigration down to school uniforms, marijuana, and flag pins.

This is epideictic speech according to the famous ancient Greek: Do you hate my taste in music? Is the boss a good person? Is this charity worthy of our support? Values are about the present.

Lots of our biggest debates are about values. But it’s also the tense where it’s hardest to move people – we’re unlikely to change our deepest politics on a whim. Instead, in a debate, values are most effective at bringing people together or driving them apart. What can we all agree on? That our group is better than the other one – we have the best values.

Arguments of Choice

Choice is about what we do next. It’s the future tense – and it’s the most important one.

Known as deliberative speech, choice arguments center on what we can change. Where should we go for dinner? Should we build a new factory in Buffalo? Should you hire our agency?

The result of an argument about choice is action. Values arguments end in tribalism. Blame arguments end in punishment.

Most leaders, and all marketers, want to influence choice. Even the most effective politicians eventually pivot from values to choice: In 2008, Barack Obama promised the choice of “change,” but John McCain just offered the value of “country first.”

Staying in the future tense is the most productive place when we debate, inform, or persuade. The magic part is that even when we get stuck in the past or the present, we can always bring our discussions back to choice. When fingers start pointing, we can ask, “What should we do about it?” or “How can we avoid this next time?” When we are the David going up against Goliath in a big pitch, we can skirt past our slim portfolio and focus our proposal on our innovative plans.

All that really matters is one thing. What’s next?

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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