I couldn't help overhearing a heated argument in a hospital hallway over options for care. Medication. Relatively minor surgery. Major surgery.

"At dad's age," the woman said, "and in his condition, major surgery just seems too risky."

Her brother waved his arms in frustration. "We have to do it," he said. "If we don't do something, he's going to die!"

The woman thought for a moment. "I guess you're right," she said. 

Should the brother have won the argument? I have no idea.

What's interesting is how he won the argument. He didn't discuss the pros and cons of different treatment options. He didn't weigh the relative risks and rewards. 

Nope: He jumped to an extreme position, what 17th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called the counterproposal paradox:

To make your opponent accept a proposition, you must give him or her an opposite, counterproposition as well.

If the contrast is glaring, the opponent will accept your proposition to avoid being paradoxical.

Even though "doing nothing" had never been an option on the disagreement table, the brother's counterproposal was either the major surgery or its opposite.

Which turned what was a complex decision into an either/or proposition.

And which meant, to avoid being paradoxical -- because clearly the last thing she wanted to do was nothing -- his sister agreed to the major surgery option.

The Counterproposal Paradox

Whether consciously or not, people frequently use the counterproposal paradox to win arguments.

Say you're deciding how to deal with a disciplinary issue. The person who wants the employee to be fired -- because the person who takes the most extreme position is most likely to whip out the counterproposal paradox -- may win the argument by saying, "We all agree we can't let the situation continue. So he has to go." 

Since no one thinks nothing should be done, you may find yourself agreeing to do the opposite of nothing to avoid being paradoxical -- even though there are plenty of other options for dealing with a subpar employee.

Or say you're deciding between options to expand your marketing. The loudest person -- because the loudest person is most likely to whip out the counterproposal paradox -- may win the argument by saying, "Look, we have to expand our reach. So let's use Facebook Ads."

Since no one thinks not expanding into other marketing channels is an option, you agree to Facebook Ads to avoid being paradoxical -- even though there are plenty of other channels available.

So how do you avoid falling prey to the counterproposal paradox? First, watch for the glaring counterproposition, the one that turns a complex and nuanced discussion into an either/or proposition.

Feel free to agree with the basic premise. But don't stop there.

For example, say:

  • "You're right. We do need to choose a treatment plan. But that doesn't mean the operation is our only choice. Let's talk through all the options and agree on which we think is best." Or,
  • "You're right. We do need to deal with his performance. But that doesn't mean firing him is the only option. Let's talk through the possibilities and determine the best way to move forward." Or,
  • "You're right. We do need to expand our marketing. But that doesn't mean Facebook Ads is our only option. Let's run some projections for each of the alternatives. " 

Because most discussions -- especially the discussions most worth having -- don't come down to either/or.

So don't let them.

At least until either and or are the last positions standing based on merit.

And not a clever rhetorical device.