According to Aristotle, all arguments boil down to just three issues: Blame, Values and Choice. For example, “Who set off the banking crisis?” is about blame, “Is abortion murder?” is about values, and “Should we build a new freeway to the north?” is about choice. These three kinds of arguments are each associated with a different verb tense. If you control the tense, you control the argument!
Blame = past tense
Values = present tense
Choice = future tense
It’s important to focus on the type of argument – and the tense – that will achieve your ultimate goal. For example, the past tense is what you use to determine “whodunnit”, to apportion blame and mete out punishment, while the present tense is great for getting your audience to unify behind a particular belief, identify in a certain way, or judge something as good or bad. If you want to come to a joint decision about something, however, you need to focus on the future – the kind of argument Aristotle called “deliberative”. Deliberative argument is the most pragmatic kind of rhetoric, and the most useful in a business context.
If you find yourself losing control of an argument, or losing out to a competing pitch, try changing the tense. Go from blame to choice by saying “What should we do about it?”, “How can we keep it from happening again?” or “These are all good points, but how are we going to…?” Alternatively, if you feel that an argument is focusing too much on the future, and you would like to delay any decisions on actions, use the present tense to shift the focus to present values or use the past tense to apportion blame.