The First-Liar-Wins Rule

I read Bob Lewis’ IS Survival Guide almost a decade ago and really enjoyed his candid insight to politics.

I lost track of him until recently when I subscribed to InfoWorld‘s blogs and particularly Bob’s “Advice Line” posts. Here is today’s post in its entirety. As an infrastructure and operations manager dealing with developers and vendors who will say and do anything to get into Production, I found this hilarious and familiar!

How to expose empty office rhetoric — constructively

By Bob Lewis
Created 2011-02-02 11:36AM

Dear Bob …

I need a snappy comeback. One of my peers likes to describe every idea he proposes as “it’s just common sense.” Occasionally his ideas actually make sense. More often they’re nonsense, but the sort of bumper-sticker-length nonsense that requires an essay to rebut.

Of course, I never get the airtime I need to explain the facts of life. Any thoughts on how to deal with this?

– Ready to explode

Dear TNT …

“It’s just common sense” is a specific example of a cheap but remarkably effective rhetorical ploy called — by me, at least — the First Liar Wins (FLW) rule. FLW is in effect whenever a conversational combatant asserts a fact, evidence, or conclusion that is (1) simply stated; (2) superficially plausible; and (3) emotionally appealing.

It works because once uttered — and because they are simple, plausible, and appealing — any attempt to refute them sounds argumentative rather than constructive.

Strictly speaking, propositions supported by the First Liar Wins rule don’t have to be lies or bad ideas. They might be good ideas by accident. Sometimes they are good ideas whose proponents have the rhetorical skill to recognize that any attempt to support them with evidence and logic would be a self-defeating exercise in inflicted eye-glazing.

How do you counter something that’s simple, plausible, and appealing? You need code words and phrases that are just as potent and inoffensive as “common sense,” and that create doubt around it without arguing with it.

Code words and phrases like “plausible,” “view from 50,000 feet,” “peel the onion,” and the ever-popular “but.”

Here’s how it works: Your verbal opponent asserts an idea, an opinion, or a plan as “common sense.” You say, “When viewed from 50,000 feet I can see how this would look plausible. But if we peel the onion just a bit, I’m pretty sure we’ll find the situation is a lot more complicated than it looks — complicated enough that no single, simple solution is going to take care of the situation.”

There’s no single approach that successfully challenges FLW in all its permutations. What you can count on is that improvising rarely works in this situation. You need to anticipate it and have your own well-stocked bag of tricks, out of which you can grab an appropriate verbal ploy whenever you need it. In fact, that’s a general rule of improvisation: Preparation is the key.

– Bob