How fire chiefs can out-communicate irrational people

The ancient Greeks developed communication strategies to influence people, and they should be used by every fire chief today

By Rommie L. Duckworth

The fire service uses bugles to denote rank for good reason: because communication is key to leadership. Your leadership varies depending on what you want to accomplish, and so should your communications.

You must adapt your communications strategy and tactics to the situation that you are in and the goals that you are trying to accomplish.

An officer on the fireground uses more direct commands and orders. This communication style works well with immediate transactional (carrot or stick) leadership.

When leading in non-emergency situations, you are more likely to engage in back-and-forth discussion. This works better with long-term transformational (influence and motivation) leadership.

For fire officers frustrated by difficult discussions with irrational people, good communication strategy and tactics may help.

When your goals are to persuade, motivate or inform people, your communication strategies should include a three-pronged approach. This communication strategy is known as the “modes of persuasion” and is one that leaders have been using effectively for more than 2,000 years.

Aristotle says

To persuade, motivate or inform an individual or group of people, your communication must include three components: authority, emotion and logic. This was developed by the ancient Greeks as ethos, pathos and logos.

These modes of persuasion are as relevant to today’s fire officer as they were in 400 BC when Aristotle wrote, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech was so spoken as to make us think him credible....

“Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.... Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.”

Beware of the trap of thinking, "I am informative, persuasive and motivating.” Instead, ask yourself: Does the audience believe that I know what I am talking about (authority), feel that it is important (emotion) and understand what I'm trying to say (logic)?

If your goal is to persuade, motivate or inform someone else, you must look at your communication from their perspective.

Unfortunately, even the best strategies don’t always produce the sought-after outcome. You may be presenting a well-reasoned and rational argument to an audience that is not arguing or thinking rationally.

When losing is winning

When you find yourself engaged in a heated conversation with someone who is irrational (and usually angry), there are tactics and techniques that may yet still bring them over to your side.

Sometimes, however, that simply isn’t going to happen. When this is the case, don’t get drawn into a heated argument with no positive outcome, Rather, focus on changing the minds of the larger audience, bystanders and observers.

You must decide if you want to be right and “win” against the person with whom you are arguing, or be influential and make your point to the broader audience.

If you want to be influential, you need to understand the communication strategies that your opponent is likely using to influence the audience. They may be the same as yours, but with a twist.

Irrational people argue either to seek authority or to exert authority that they feel is not being recognized. The further you engage with them directly, the more you help them.

Irrational people rely strongly on emotion, especially when they do not have true authority or logic to rely on. In some cases, the whole point of their argument may only be to get an emotional reaction from you or the audience.

Keep your head and don’t react to the emotional gasoline they’re throwing at you.

Finally, the argument that is presented may often appear to be logical in the heat of the moment, but won’t hold up under scrutiny. Whether they realize it or not, they (and maybe even you) may be using cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

Built-in biases

Cognitive biases are internal mental short-cuts that can affect any of us. These flaws in thinking feel correct, but can lead to catastrophic mistakes.

Here are five examples of cognitive bias.

  • Fundamental attribution error is the tendency of humans to judge others by their actions that you can see while expecting others to judge them by their good intentions.
  • Availability bias is the tendency to greatly overestimate the importance of an easily accessible example.
  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that confirms what we like while ignoring information that supports what we don't like.
  • Distinction bias is the tendency to make two options appear as direct opposites even though in reality they may not be that far apart.
  • Negativity bias is the tendency to focus far more on the negative aspects of something, even if there are more important positive aspects.

Here are three tactics to deal with cognitive biases.

First, recognize that everyone is vulnerable. Watch out for your own cognitive biases. Second, be sure to have good authority, emotional and logical components of your argument. Consider how strong these three points are from the listeners’ perspective.

And third, don’t get riled up or drawn in to refuting the other person’s assertion. Often, this only makes it sound like their argument is more valid.

Logical fallacies are errors in logical arguments; here are seven examples.

  • Ad hominem is fighting against a person instead of focusing on a topic.
  • Appeal to tradition is fighting against something simply because it is new.
  • Appeal to novelty is fighting for something simply because it is new.
  • Correlation and causality is talking about two things that may be connected and assuming that one caused the other.
  • False dichotomy is framing the discussion as if there are only two possible choices, ignoring all other options.
  • Fallacy of perfectionism is arguing that there is no point even starting or trying something if it isn’t guaranteed to be 100 percent perfect.
  • Slippery slope is arguing that taking one step in a particular direction will certainly lead to extreme consequences.

Fixing broken logic

Here are three tactics to deal with logical fallacies.

First, keep the discussion on topic. Connect what you are talking about to the central mission, vision and values of your organization.

Second, focus on the known, provable facts of the situation. Big numbers grab attention. Great stories compel action. Concrete examples convince firefighters.

Third, don’t follow the argument, lead the argument. Don’t let them set up how the argument works. Especially watch for attempts to frame the argument as binary (only either/or) or linear (cause/effect).

Keep in mind that the point is not to be able to identify cognitive biases and logical fallacies to verbally shred an opponent, it is to make a better argument for the wider audience.

Good communication strategies and tactics exist to overcome cognitive biases as logical fallacies. Become familiar with them and use that knowledge for more effective influence rather than to simply tell someone how and why they’re wrong.

When you focus on what is right, not who is right, you can more effectively persuade, motivate and inform people. That is the heart of effective leadership.

About the author
Rom Duckworth is an award-winning educator with more than 25 years working in career and volunteer fire departments and in public and private emergency services. A past volunteer assistant chief and currently a career fire captain and paramedic EMS coordinator, Rom is an emergency services advocate and a contributor to magazines and textbooks on topics of leadership, emergency operations and educational methodology. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and symposia around the world and can be reached via

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