Mediation Techniques: The Steel Man Technique

What is the steel man technique and how do you use it in mediation? It’s a very powerful technique for resolving communications and it can come in very handy with mediation.  

Typically within negotiation or arbitration, you’re trying to argue your point to be more persuasive to the other party. By doing that you are trying to reduce or diminish their argument and prove your case better than theirs, by downplaying or weakening their argument and weakening their point of view. The steel man technique does the opposite. You’re building up their point of view to give your opponent’s perspective, the strongest version of itself that it can have. Why would you want to do that and how is it going to help you? 

Well, it seems counterproductive, but in reality, it can achieve the best results for you selfishly, and for the other party altruistically in any kind of negotiation or mediation. Instead of taking the other person’s argument or their point of view and diminishing it by finding the fault, finding the cracks, and finding the weak points, what you do is reinforce it and improve it. You point out the best things that they have to offer. By building the best version of the other side’s argument you engage with that. 

It sounds like you’re being charitable, but by patching up the weaknesses in their side of the story. You can bring the best counter-argument to your point of view. It’s hard to do when you’re trying to argue your point because arguing the other person’s point of view might seem like it’s against what you’re trying to accomplish. However, most of the time if you go into a mediation trying to be the winner rather than it being correct, you’re going to fail. 

There’s an old Aesop’s fable where the sun and the wind were both looking from up in the sky down at a man walking with a jacket on and they argued with each other and they made a bet. Who can get the guy with the jacket to take off his jacket? The wind said, “I’ll do it by force!” And the wind blew hard and then harder, 50 miles an hour and then 60 miles an hour. And the guy with the coat kept holding his coat even tighter. Kept gripping it as hard as he could to keep the coat from flying off. The wind kept blowing and he failed. The sun now had his turn and he just beamed very brightly. The guy got so hot, that he took off the coat by himself. 

This is similar to an allegory to the idea of this steel man technique for negotiation. If you want somebody to do something or to at least accommodate your needs do it by getting them to see it is their own idea. If you can persuade the other party by showing how the strengths in their argument match yours, it’s a collaborative thing. You’re not working against them. They’re fighting back even harder. You’re working with them so that they move in the same direction you are. Many times in an argument, litigation, or negotiation the illogical arguments that people make get magnified only just cause they’re trying to fight back against you. Many times you see the foolishness of the other person’s argument. You see the foolishness of their point of view. Then you ask yourself, why are they arguing this stupid idea? Many times it’s just a fight back against you because you have an idea they don’t like, and this is their way of fighting back against it even though they might even believe that what they’re saying doesn’t make any sense. It’s on the principle that they’re fighting back.

So if you build up the value in what is true about their argument, they can abandon the things that are not true. Think about it, even if you’re arguing with another party about anything, a court case, divorce case, negotiation of a contract, or just debating a friend, there are some parts of their argument that you agree with that you know to be true. It doesn’t matter what it is, there are some parts you know to be true. Now, it might be hard for you to see those because of the other person’s magnifying the things that aren’t true. It could also be hard for you to see those because you don’t want to believe anything they say you want to just be completely against everything they say just on principle. But by looking at the things of their argument that are true and building those up and by agreeing with them and making them even bigger than they are.

In the steel man technique, the other person sees that their thoughts are taken seriously and you’re not brushing them aside and you’re not disputing them. If you argue against something that is obviously true, they’re not going to take you seriously either. If you show that you understand their arguments good and bad and improve them, you might even suggest this thing that you’re saying is true. You might say it in another way cause it’s even more true than you think. Don’t sell yourself short, build this up. You need to constantly test your own assumptions because you might be presuming that everything about your opponent is incorrect. And by doing that, you’re going to create your own twisted arguments against them and if you listen to what they’re saying, pick out the things that are true or at least you agree with build those up all the other impossible things will go away and you might find the solution materializes by itself. 

So all you know about an argument is your own side of the case. All you know is your own belief and your own perspective. You’ll know less about that than you could, if you know the other person’s side of your case like what they’re arguing against, you can see it now from a different point of view. It’s like the old forest through the trees. If you can see your argument and your perspective from outside of yourself, you can see more of the actual shape of it and you might find there are some parts about it you don’t even want to cling to anymore. And the combination of you dismissing some of your own arguments even if it’s 10 or 15% a small percentage that you’re realizing yeah this is ridiculous and adopting 10 or 15% of the other side, you might be able to keep 80% of what you believe in. And have the other person go along with it because now you’re in lockstep you’re going in the same direction as them. And if they see you taking control of helping to move your argument forward they’re going to be less suspicious of you and more likely to throw in with you on the overall solution. 

So the steel man technique can be extremely valuable and it’s tricky. It takes a lot of practice. You might want to try it out with more friendly conversations, you know friends relatives people close to you, and see how it works out before you do it where it’s a mission-critical opportunity. But with mediation, we use this all the time too, for both sides to help both sides build up what’s right about their own point of view. And we even asked the other side to say look this is something that would help you isn’t it? And it’s tough because people have their own sense of pride and principles that they don’t want to give in even on something that doesn’t mean anything. So it’s a tricky thing. A mediator can help dissolve some of these hangups, but if you have some built-in knowledge of this, it can serve you well in your own endeavors in life or in conflicts with others.

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