Communicating Using Enthymemes Is More Effective Than Communicating Using Syllogisms. Know What I Mean?
By Thomas J. Roach
Management and communication are inseparable terms. Managers can’t perform their jobs without communicating, and all business communication is done in an attempt to manage projects, situations or people. Yet there are theories and practices that students of communication learn that are unheard of in management circles.
Philosophers and rhetorical theorists have ascribed primary importance to the concepts of enthymeme and syllogism for more than 2,000 years, but today few know what they mean.
Enthymeme and Syllogism
Syllogism may be the most familiar of the two terms. It refers to an argument that says if a and b are true, then c must also be true. For instance, if everyone who gets bitten by a zombie turns into a zombie, and Bob was bitten by a zombie, then we know that Bob will soon be a zombie.
The first two points are premises; if the premises are right, then the conclusion must be right. Bob has a zombie bite; all zombie bites turn people into zombies, therefore Bob will become a zombie.
The enthymeme is like the syllogism, but it leaves out one of the premises. In zombie movies, characters don’t talk in syllogisms, they talk in enthymemes. If the other characters see Bob has bite marks, they shoot Bob. They don’t say, “Bob has a zombie bite, all zombie bites turn people into zombies, therefore Bob is a zombie,” they just see the bite and shoot Bob.
It’s enthymatical. In the movie “World War Z,” one character sees a zombie bite the arm of someone near him, and he immediately cuts off her arm. It is a visual enthymeme. The audience instantly reacts against the visceral, violent action, then they intuitively fill in the blanks: a zombie bit her; zombie bites turn people into zombies; cutting off her arm saved her life.
What Does All This Mean?
How is this theory useful for managers? I am not arguing that all subordinates are zombies. The point is that communicating using enthymemes is more effective than communicating using syllogisms. Syllogisms tell people what to think; enthymemes cause people to think for themselves. The difference is profound.
Syllogistic arguments are boring, enthymatic arguments are engaging. When listeners have to fill in the blanks to get the point, they are more likely to remember the point and to understand why it is true. We think and grow when we engage enthymemes, we act like, well, zombies, when we listen to syllogisms.
A manager who understands this tries to avoid telling subordinates what to do. He or she gives them objectives and parameters and lets them figure out for themselves how to proceed to get to the end result. Then when the subordinates are in similar situations, they don’t go back to the manager to get directions, they access the knowledge they have accumulated from cognitive experience to solve the new problem.
This is essentially the difference between what we used to call theory x and theory y management. The theory x manager believes that employees are unmotivated and need surveillance, direction and coercion. The theory y manager sees work as a pleasurable experience and believes that employees will work harder and smarter if they are trusted and allowed to make decisions for themselves.
Good teachers know this style of communication well. It is called the Socratic method. Socrates didn’t lecture his listeners, he asked them questions, which caused them to test their assumptions and consider alternative ways of looking at things.
Obviously there are situations where it is unwise to risk a misunderstanding. In some instances managers need to give directions and even to spell them out in great detail. There is nothing wrong with carefully giving instructions.
It is problematic, however, if managers are always only giving explicit directions. These managers are easy to spot. They like to complain about their workers. They will tell you their subordinates act like zombies, and they do, because someone made them that way.
Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].