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Rationality Rocks!  (Not)There’s a steady flow of questions on the XP List whose underlying texture is a request for the perfect rational argument.  This argument is so powerful, it will instantly render any resisting team into sweet Stepford Geeks, ready to do pretty much whatever the coach says.

Rational argument is never enough.

Rational argument is ridiculously overrated as a persuader. Many coaches come to me saying, “Yo, Geeps, I explained to them why xyzzy is gonna help, but they didn’t listen.” If you’re going to be a coach, you’re going to have to swallow this bitter pill.  It is prolly best that you take it in right at the beginning.

You see, kids, rational arguments aren’t enough because people are not rational in any trivial sense.

Oh, we occasionally reason, and sometimes we use logic.  We’re almost always prepared to justify our behavior, ex post facto, through the language of reason. All of that is interesting, but it doesn’t add up to people being rational in any naive sense.  Rational arguments rarely convince anyone at all to try something new to them.

On the other hand, it is certainly important to know your rational arguments well.  Oh yes.  Rational arguments matter quite a bit in the coaching process.  Or for that matter, any process where one person influences another.

Why?

Because rationality is sometimes a  key to plausibility, and plausibility is almost always a pre-requisite for experiment.  You want to know the ‘rational explanations’ for the behavior you’re trying to instill, so that people won’t block their own experimentation just by getting caught up in their own rational arguments.

You need to hold in your mind that many so-called rational arguments may or may not be actually rational, including yours. And you need to get past this realization as painlessly as possible.

There’s good news, though.  People aren’t depending on the correctness of your rational arguments, anyway.  Your victims are trying to answer a much more basic question about your ideas:  Is this obviously stupid? Use your rational arguments to demonstrate that your ideas are not, at first blush anyway, a newly invented form of asshattery.

See, human beings have limited time, energy, and vision.  They are – here’s that word again – thrown, at all places and all times, into situations they do not and can not fully grasp, with choices whose consequences they do not and can not fully grasp. They must have tricks to help guide them.

One of those key tricks is the ‘plausibly rational argument’ test. After all, if an idea is clearly stupid to start with, there’s no reason for us to pursue it. Rational arguments are the way to get past the first triage of ideas. Nothing either more, or less, than that.  Act accordingly.

The thought for the day:

Rational argument begins, not ends, discussion.


4 Responses to “Coaching: The Perfect Rational Argument”

  1. rubytester says:

    Very good post, I think this post here is a new twist on “solve their problems not yours” from the last post, no?

    I mean; Here we are in a world of a ‘Coach’ who is perplexed; the ‘rational argument’ won’t work, why? The ‘Coach’ is resorting to ‘rational explanations’ since he has already noticed that ‘they won’t do what you want them to do’. Next he’ll try ‘pity’? some ‘persuading’? maybe ‘guilt trip’? or ‘oh, come on guys,give me a break’!!! style of ‘coaching’.

    I might even say that ‘rational argument’ does not even begin discussion. They’ve stopped listening before you arrived at ‘rational argument’, no?

    Being ‘thrown’ the first thing I would want a coach to do would be to bring some calmness, start from scratch and interview me to find the ‘commitments’ that drive the coaching relationship. I think that’s a ‘rational’ way to proceed.

  2. GeePawHill says:

    Wow. I think your last para there is perfect.

    They *are* looking for someone to be calm and cheerful to help them create a workplace that works for them.

  3. Very good post! I often work as an agile coach and much of the changes I want a person or a team to make is based in their own belief. Over the years I have learned that you can not convice an another person by facts, it is their own insight that makes them take a decision to make the change happen. I suppose that’s why I’m sometimes accuse of not aswering questions, just asking questions back.

    • GeePawHill says:

      Heh. Funny about that Socrates thing, huh? It turns out that people only like the Socratic method when it’s theoretical. Easy to see how he got in trouble: too many damned questions. :)

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