On One Hand

July 3, 2014

A simple trick to stop ‘arguing’ and be really persuasive

Filed under: culture,science — ononehand @ 2:07 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

There’s a tendency to think of persuasion in terms of winning an argument or debate. You’re trying to be rational: you’re thinking that if you defend your position with logic and evidence, and prove that the counter-arguments are false, the other person is now obligated to switch to your view.

If only life were so simple. In your mind you have proven you are right, but the other person is just thinking she or he needs to do some homework to come up with a better rebuttal tomorrow. Once you set someone up as your intellectual adversary they are not going to cross the line to join you.

That might be why political debates don’t have a significant influence on elections, no matter how well one side does or how eloquently the positions are argued. People root for the candidate they already support, and the arguments can stir up enthusiasm but they don’t “convert.” There’s a very different way that candidates vie for votes.

The reality is that people in the day-to-day world believe things because they want to. There are just far too many competing ideas and decisions to make to investigate each one objectively. Everyone is able to weigh different factors — pros and cons — to arrive at an opinion or decision, but the weight people grant to each factor comes down to how much they like and identify with it.

Persuading effectively comes down to this simple approach:


  • Identify an idea that you and your audience can already agree on. (Common values or principles, something you might both say is a problem, a universal need, etc.)
  • Validate your audience’s existing beliefs, observations and experiences.
  • Explain that those same reasons drive you to stand where you do.

And that’s basically it. People are very inclined to side with you simply because you are someone with similar concerns and reached the conclusion you did.

The main goals are to be relatable — the person you are trying to persuade is your peer, not inferior to you — and to emphasize your area of agreement so much that the other factors fade from mind.

Here’s the important part: DO NOT argue points where you disagree. Acknowledge them as valid points and then steer the conversation away from them. No matter how ridiculous you think they are and no matter how strong your evidence against them is, you’re not going to convince people their own interests or ideas are wrong. They will always be a factor, but you can say that a different set of factors (the ones that support your cause) are more compelling for you.



Think back to the last time you observed a political campaign. One thing you won’t see a candidate do is try to get voters to change their minds about their basic ideals and principles. They won’t try to convert liberals into conservatives or convert conservatives into liberals, but the candidates will jump and tumble over each other trying to validate the experiences and values of crucial swing voters.

They’ll say, “We know that families in Ohio are struggling.” (something that they’ve poll-tested to be sure the audience they’re targeting agrees). “Jobs have been shipped overseas, and too many people are worried whether the manufacturing industry — once the backbone of the American economy — is ever going to come back…” (validating the audience’s existing worries and experiences) “…which is why I have a plan to create more than a million new manufacturing jobs over the next five years.”

This candidate might disagree with the target audience when it comes to immigration policy, foreign policy or social issues, but isn’t going to try to sway their minds on those things. She’ll just keep hammering on areas where she and the audience agree, and try to make the election all about those things.



Now I call this a “trick” because that’s what it is; while it comes instinctively to many people, it’s a technique that can help you towards high-minded goals as well as goals that are very selfish and manipulative. If you’re trying to get people to turn against their own interests, eventually they’re going to figure that out and you might never gain their trust again. And if someone senses over time that you’re only feigning commonality to persuade them without being open to their ideas as well, they’re going to get really annoyed and stop listening to you. You’re better off if you’re looking to learn from people as much as to persuade them.

So be genuine and authentic, approach everyone by trying to find your common ground, and stop wasting your energy arguing! (Unless it’s something you really enjoy doing.)

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