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Volume 1, Issue 13;   March 28, 2001: The Slippery Slope That Isn't

The Slippery Slope That Isn't

by

"If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope" tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks that push our buttons.

Jim felt the team converging on a decision — from his perspective, not a good decision. So he offered, "We're getting lots of complaints about this. I think we should fix it in this release." Beth was unmoved. "OK, customers are complaining, but they complain about everything. If we add these fixes just because of a few complaints, we'll have to add the whole B list, and we'll never ship."

Capitol Hill at night

The U.S. Capitol at night. "Slippery slope" arguments are a favorite tactic of politicians the world over.

Jim had been "slippery-sloped." To use the rhetorical trick called the slippery slope, you exaggerate your opponent's argument and claim that conceding your opponent's point means accepting the exaggerated form as well. You usually prevail because the exaggerated form is scary — so scary that observers rarely notice that you haven't justified the exaggerated form.

Nobody noticed that Beth hadn't justified her claim that they would have to add the entire B list. She glided over it, nobody questioned her, and Jim's proposal was rejected.

When a problem-solving team is slippery-sloped, it's misled, and it risks failing to find a solution. It mistakenly concludes that accepting one point requires that it accept that point's exaggerated form, and so it rejects the original point. What can you do to reduce your team's vulnerability to this trick?

First, educate people in advance. Don't introduce the slippery-slope concept during a slippery-slope incident. A team in the midst of heated debate doesn't want to take time out to learn rhetorical techniques. Moreover, someone will have just used the tactic, and your attempt to educate might look like a personal attack. Instead, at a meeting when no serious debate is expected, explain the slippery-slope tactic, and the damage it does. For a little humor, use examples from Meet the Press or the Congressional Record.

Slippery-sloping
works because
the exaggerated claim
is so scary
Once everyone knows about the tactic, it's much less effective, and it's less likely to be used. If it does appear, call time out and let people know what you feel you saw. Have an open discussion, and if all agree that it really was a slippery-slope tactic, you can investigate the implicit connection between the original claim and its exaggerated form. The connection might be real, and if you all agree that it is, then you can resume the debate. Otherwise, you can go back to the unextended form and start to build on that as a solution. This works best if the person who calls time out is an observer of the debate, rather than the one who was slippery-sloped.

Once everyone understands that slippery-sloping is taboo, they'll wonder "If slippery-sloping is taboo now, won't all my sneaky tactics be taboo soon?" And of course, it's true. You'll be on the slippery slope toward treating each other with dignity and respect — not a bad slope to be on. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Shape of the Table  Next Issue

For far more than you ever wanted to know about slippery-slope argumentation, see M.J. Rizzo, "The Camel's Nose Is in the Tent: Rules, Theories, and Slippery Slopes."

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