two scarecrows in a field

How to Build a Steelman, Not a Strawman, During Your Next Disagreement

A guest post from one of my dear prayer partners:

Maybe try this with your husband next time you have an argument. Often men (women too) don’t even know how to communicate effectively.  Maybe we can provide some sweet assistance.

It starts with understanding two very different approaches:

  • A “strawman” is a misrepresentation of someone’s position or argument that is easy to defeat. With this approach, your goal is to create a win/lose situation where you win and the other person loses.
  • A “steelman” is an actual improvement of someone’s position or argument that is far harder to defeat than their originally stated position or argument.  The goal of this approach is to completely understand the other person’s argument to create a win/win.

My husband and I use the steelman concept at home to get each other’s positions as accurately and strongly as possible until the other agrees that it is what they are trying to say. This validates the other person’s position and we both know we deeply understand one another. 

From there we can have a full discussion about what to do. 

(This works with other relationships, as well.)

Why the Steelman Approach Blesses Your Marriage

In other words, unlike in court, we have to help our spouse (and this goes both directions) make their arguments and points if we want to truly, deeply solve things.  

Every spouse wants to have his/her thoughts taken seriously and not brushed aside.  

The best way to do this is to show that you deeply understand the thrust of your husband’s argument by improving on the way the core idea is expressed.  Even if you don’t agree.  

Anything less and you’ll merely be attacking a weak manifestation of their idea, and not the genuine idea itself. In marriage, we have to help each other make the best possible cases. 

Try it, it is incredibly validating and softening to our husbands.  (I know this from the marriage classes I teach at church.)  

Why the Strawman Approach Hurts Your Marriage

In an effort to “win” we create a straw man to engage with. The problem is, it’s only a shallow caricature of our husband’s argument. (Men do this to their wives, too, sometimes.)  

That undermines him by attacking the weakest part of his argument.  The prideful desire to win at all costs ahead causes untold amounts of marriage problems.  I see this so often in the marriage classes I teach.  

But if you’re interested in deeply connecting in Christ, more than “winning,” and you really want to reach that person’s heart, there’s a far better way.

I must turn off my “lawyer mode”

It is such a mind-shift for me because in court I attack the weakest part of the opponent’s arguments because I am trying to win. In our marriages, as you know, we can’t win unless we both win together.

I help my husband make his arguments and I even strengthen them where I can. He does the same for me. It is so beautiful and invites trust to blossom in the marriage.   

**Note – If there are very severe issues in your marriage, please seek godly, experienced help. This approach is not intended to help you work through problems with an addict, an abuser, or someone who is not in his/her right mind.

3 Steelman Tips

Here are a few of my favorite tips to help you build a steelman for your husband’s argument in a discussion:

  1. Take his side for a bit. Attempt to re-express your husband’s position so clearly, so vividly and so fairly that he says: “Wow, thank you so much, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”  That’s deep understanding and validation!!! 
  2. Institute this rule: Each person can share his/her own views only after they have first restated the ideas and feelings of the other accurately and to the other spouse’s satisfaction. 
  3. Seek to honor God first. Have this mentality: “I just want to live my life to glorify God. I just want to do the things that please the Father’s heart” (Proverbs 14:12, Ephesians 6:6, Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 4:1, Matthew 6:2, 25:23, Colossians 3:23)

Misunderstandings create a lot of pain and walls. They cause us to assume our spouse has evil motives. Then we react to lies about our spouse rather than what they really think and their true motives. That is a dysfunctional, toxic way to relate.

It has just been my experience in so many mediations that couples deeply, clearly understanding one other really melts hearts.  

I see this all over early Christianity.  They called it the Principle of Charity—the idea that interpreting your spouse’s viewpoint in a charitable way (assuming the best rather than the worst) can really lead to more fruitful discussions and problem-solving.

I just hate it when Christian couples attack each other trying to “win”.  It breaks my heart. No one wins when we use that approach but the enemy.

I want to see us have discussions that are so filled with God’s Spirit, love, and honor for one another that Jesus wins, our spouse wins, the kingdom of God wins, our children win, and we win!          

9 thoughts to “How to Build a Steelman, Not a Strawman, During Your Next Disagreement”

  1. I totally agree with this angle, as it is one I embrace as much as possible. I pray this explanation helps many couples improve their relationship, especially when conflict arises.

  2. thank you so much for your love and concern for teaching women but sometimes a knock down drag out seems to be the only way that works for some very stubborn men who just will not hear.

    I actually had to tell my husband of 40 plus years loud and clear that I was going to throw him out due to his laziness (computer, reading, no sense of responsibility to doing anything around the house) the results of his lifestyle have caused him much illness. And he was going without his computer or cat!

    The residual effects of caring for a sick husband caused a mental and physical breakdown to my system resulting in a cancer diagnosis, anxiety, panic attacks, my body was depleted. I basically had been his problem solver for 4 decades, he had a problem, illness, hurt, need and I was there to solve it -fix it -change it – etc all under the false teachings of patriarchy and yes complementarianism. On top of this I had a full time job and after retirement I have a full time in home business. (After cancer surgery I refused chemo/rad due to the fact that his surgery left him so weak, that one of us had to be functional~)

    He got so weak after several hospital stays that he went into the nursing home for rehab and guess what they had him do….they made him exercise and oh my—they had him make his bed, do laundry and other house hold chores (basically women’s work!) all part of his rehab…he came home much stronger and able to do stuff. I called it boot camp as in 18 days they were able to do what 40 plus years of trying to be the submissive wife had not done. He was able to walk and move better, much stronger, clear headed, etc.

    But he lapsed into “would you do this for me” and spent way too much time sitting and I finally had it out with him, shape up or I was personally going to throw him out…….and I meant it. It certainly got the message across because years of doing what you recommend in this article DID NOT WORK!

    Lately I have been researching the meaning of EZER KENEGDO and it is certainly an eye-opening experience. Where women ARE men’s equal and not their little submissive quiet respectful helper with the designation of wife, mother and home keeper–the name god gave in describing the woman he made for Adam translates into “Equal Power”.

    I urge you and your readers to check it out…there are many sites and blogs written by women who have been college and seminary educated (almost a blasphemy under patriarchy and eye-brow raising under complementarianism) in the ancient languages and have spent years researching the meaning of those words. I think it will be an empowering and enlightening experience.

    1. Susan’s Saddle Stands,

      Goodness! Ya’ll have been through a LOT!

      You know, one thing I have to be super careful of is that I can easily slip into being codependent with others. Meaning, I can easily take too much responsibility and do things for them, to the degree that it is actually harmful to myself and to the other person. I did this for years with my sister when we were growing up. And with my husband and others I have noticed that when I try to enable people, it doesn’t go well for either of us.

      Yes, there are those who teach that biblical submission means a wife should be codependent, or a doormat. But I don’t believe that is what Scripture is describing, at all. There are times we need to confront sin, although I don’t think we have to sin in order to do so. I believe we can be firm and respectful at the same time through the power of the Spirit. I believe God can give us the wisdom and power to do this in ways that honor Him when it is needed.

      I have a post about Healthy VS Unhealthy relationships that may be a blessing for women struggling with this. And ladies are also welcome to search my home page for “codependency” and “husband idol” for more resources.

      My desire is that we might all be whole and healthy in Christ, handling His Word rightly and walking in the calling He has given us. That we might be spiritually well in Christ first and that we might relate to our husbands and others in God-honoring ways, not dysfunctional or enabling ways.

      Submission is not about people pleasing or placating our husbands. It is not about ignoring sin or going along with things that are unhealthy. It is not about being weak and spineless. It is about yielding ourselves fully to God first and then choosing to interact with our husbands in ways that bring glory to Christ. It’s not about seeking our will first. Or seeking our husband’s will first. But about seeking God’s will above all. God alone is worthy of our total submission. With imperfect people, we must use His wisdom and not just blindly cooperate with anything a person says.

      Thanks for sharing. Praying for God’s continued healing for you both!

      1. Ladies,

        A fantastic resource for women who tend to associate submission and respect in marriage with codependency and enabling is Nina Roesner’s Becoming a Woman of Strength and Dignity eCourse. I highly recommend it!

      2. and your gentle response is why I keep reading your blog….you have your set of beliefs and advice that are set up to help but you respond with kindness if someone says something that does not totally agree with what you write……unfortunately there are others who give similar advice of patriarchy and complementatrian beliefs but they call you a downright sinner and going against god’s commands for disagreeing with them. And both sites have banned me.

        1. Susan’s Saddle Stands,

          As believers, we are called to treat one another with gentleness and respect. I realize you have some incredible difficult circumstances to deal with in your life currently and in the past—that breaks my heart! I also realize that ultimately, no one answers to me, only to the Lord. My desire is to love women and share God’s love and His Word with them. But what people do is ultimately up to them.

          Adding manmade rules to God’s Word can be quite oppressive (and dangerous). I hope never to do that, but to always point people to Jesus. His Word and His approval is all that matters.

          Sending much love and a huge hug to you, dear sister.

          1. You are just so sweet! And strong! Just realized that Jesus was/is gentle and strong. Just shows these qualities are not mutually exclusive! But we fight sanctification – and this is where the biggest struggle is. Our own sin.

            1. Martha,

              Yes, that is one of the most amazing things about Jesus. He is the perfect balance of many qualities that we might think of as opposing.

              Wrath-against-sin and mercy.
              Patience and justice.
              Grace and righteousness.
              Humility and omnipotence.
              Allowing us to have free will and He is sovereign.

              It is when we try to make Him be all one way or the other that we get warped views of Him.

              Balance is really key for Christ and for those who follow Him.
              We can’t accomplish this without His Spirit.

Leave a Reply to Susan Bates Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.