How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded

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Based on an article by Nathaniel Claiborne

If you want to persuade people, there are several steps you need to take if you hope to succeed. According to the fine folks at Freaknomics, these are some good general practices.

Understand How Hard Persuasion Will Be

Especially if you are having a discussion with people who are intelligent or intellectual, persuasion will be very difficult. Persuasion (which is different than proving a point) requires you to move someone from thinking one way about a subject to thinking differently. If you’re talking to smart people (or people who think they are smart), this is even more difficult. As the Freaknomics people point out:

“Smart people simply have more experience with feeling they are right, and therefore have greater confidence in their knowledge, whatever side of an issue they’re on. But being confident you are right is not the same as being right. In fact, there is almost no correlation between confidence and accuracy.”

Further, smarter people have probably thought about the issue more (if they’re arguing about it), and “when someone is heavily invested in his or her opinion, it is inevitably hard to change the person’s mind”

So how do you deal with this? If it were purely a matter of reasoning, all you would need to do is deconstruct their position logically and they should be persuaded. If that doesn’t happen, then it means there are deeper ideological and possibly emotional factors playing into their position. A negative way of framing these emotional and ideological factors is to call it “herd thinking.” Even if “herd thinking” is part of the problem, calling the person you want to persuade a “herd animal” will not help.

Persuasion Isn’t Primarily About Logic

Keep in mind that persuasion is difficult because it does not rest on logic alone. A lot depends on how you present the argument. As Levitt and Dubner explain:

“Whenever you set out to persuade someone, remember that you are merely the producer of the argument. The consumer has the only vote that counts. Your argument may be factually indisputable and logically airtight but if it doesn’t resonate for the recipient, you won’t get anywhere. “

In other words, you have to keep your audience in view. If your goal is persuasion, then your argument will look much different than if your goal is merely to attack. In other words, you need to argue from within your opponent’s belief system. For example, if you want to convince a Japanese person that Dokdo belongs to Korea, showing them Korean style slogans and protests will almost certainly fail. However, if you show them documents written by Japanese kings, historians or politicians, you might succeed.

Certainty Is Obnoxious

As Levitt and Dubner say, “Show us a ‘perfect’ solution and we’ll show you our pet unicorn.” The same goes for arguments. “If you want your argument to be taken seriously, you’d do well to admit the potential downsides,” Levitt and Dubner point out. Likewise, you’d do well to acknowledge tensions and potential problems in your beliefs. That’s not the same as admitting they are wrong. Rather, it’s acknowledging your fallibility when it comes to what you know and how you know it.

Do not claim that your view is 100% correct, because this will seem very suspicious to the other person. They are right to suspect you if you are too certain. People with strong, passionate beliefs are unlikely to be fair, but are very likely to be prejudiced. As such, you should not seem too certain of your idea.

Admit the Good Points Your Opponent Makes

This may seem strange. After all, why be respectful to an argument you reject?

One reason is that the opposing argument almost certainly has value – something you can learn from and use to strengthen your own argument. This may seem hard to believe since you are so invested in your argument, but remember, an opponent who feels his argument is ignored isn’t likely to engage with you at all. He may shout at you and you may shout back at him, but it is hard to persuade someone with whom you can’t even hold a conversation.

It isn’t likely that the person you are trying to convince is articulating a completely stupid position. There is probably some aspect of the truth in what they are saying, otherwise it wouldn’t be popular. If their argument was 100% worthless, no one would listen or care. If people are listening and caring, try to find out what is good about the argument. Then you can affirm the good parts before moving to your critique.

Don’t Use Insults

You may name-call if you’d like, but it will make persuasion almost impossible. Case in point, if you label someone a crazy bastard, you’ve just made it very unlikely they will listen to your argument. Once you start insulting people, you have officially stopped persuading. Here’s how the Freaknomics guys put it:

“If you are hoping to damage opponents’ mental health, go ahead and tell them how inferior or dim-witted or nasty they are. But even if you are certifiably right on every point, you should not think for a minute that you will ever be able to persuade them. Name-calling will make you an enemy, not an ally, and if that is your objective, then persuasion is probably not what you were after in the first place.”

Use Narratives, Stories Matter

Lastly, we need more storytelling in our persuasive efforts. In reality, stories are the most powerful forms of persuasion. A story, keep in mind, is not the same as an anecdote. Stories, as Levitt and Dubner say, fill out the picture and use “data, statistical or otherwise, to portray a sense of magnitude.” In other words, a good story is comprehensive, big and it explains the world in some powerful way. People understand the world with stories and if your story isn’t good, it will be very difficult to persuade people you’re right.

In the end, whether we follow these steps will show whether we are interested in persuasion or just fighting. If we believe our positions on important matters are true, then we should hope to persuade as many people are we can. But that requires much more than presenting logic.

Reasons People Fail in Persuasion

Impure motives. Or motives that start off pure and then change. For instance, Sam might 50% want to convince Jerry that religion is unhealthy but also 50% want to ridicule Jerry for being religious.

Neither motive is good or bad, but together they weaken and confuse each other. Sam’s motive to ridicule is going to put Jerry on the defensive, which will make it hard for him to listen to Sam’s logic.

And Sam will start peppering his arguments with mini-insults. Instead of saying, “Religion has caused many of the most bitter wars in history,” he’ll say things like, “If you stopped to think for a second, you’d realize that Religion has caused many of the most bitter wars in history.” That first clause is terrible if Sam is actually trying to persuade.

Often, people don’t really want to persuade. What they want is to show everyone that they tried to persuade. Then, after their poor attempt at persuasion fails, they have an excuse to use insults and personal attacks. Which is what they wanted to do all along.

Anger. We often want to persuade people we’re mad at. That’s natural, but, if we want to succeed, we have to always keep in mind that our anger is a stumbling block. Be angry or be a teacher. You can’t be both at the same time.

 

Impatience. You tried? Did you try ten times? Because that’s often what it takes. Understand that before you start. Did you try ten times, but each time you got a little more frustrated? Well, that’s like trying once. The tenth time should be just as patient as the first time or it’s pointless. If you say, “For the TENTH time, Dokdo is Korean land!” you’re saying both “Dokdo is Korean land” and “You are an idiot for disagreeing with me.” Your opponent will remember the attack part of your sentence much more than the logic. Is it hard to stay patient? Yes. Persuasion is hard.

Trying to Do Too Much. Let’s pretend Minsu wants to convince Toshi that Dokdo is Korean land. The problem is that in order to understand Dokdo, Toshi needs to understand how dozens of Korean kings/presidents/representatives and dozens of Japanese leaders interacted. Toshi must understand that Korea doesn’t only mean Republic of Korea (대한민국), but also Joseon and Goryeo. Toshi also has to understand the dozens of confusing and contradictory agreements the different Korean and Japanese leaders agree to. These are a lot of things Minsu needs to convince Toshi of.

Even if Minsu already understands these things (and he probably doesn’t), did he really understand it the first time he heard it? Didn’t it take him some time to learn it and understand how all these things work? Is it reasonable to expect Toshi to understand all those things in one conversation?

Not Understanding the Emotional, “Lizard” Brain. We all have lizard brains. Wrapped inside our logical, creative human brains are primitive parts of the brain that only understand fear and aggression. Although those primitive parts are simple, they can easily take over our minds. They can turn off a person’s reasoning ability.

It’s worth remembering that lizard brains are good things. We need them. When we’re crossing a street and a truck comes rushing towards us, we don’t have time for logic. Logic is great, but it’s slow. We just need to react.

The other thing worth remembering is that while you can’t use reason on a lizard brain, you can calm it until it shuts off. When the lizard brain turns off, logic can begin. This is why you can’t persuade people who feel threatened or angry. Those people are thinking with the lizard brain.

You can’t skip the “calming” step. You can’t act like the lizard brain doesn’t exist. If you act like you’re talking to a logical computer when you’re talking to an emotional lizard, you’re the fool.

Study Questions:

  • Explain a time when you successfully persuaded someone to change a belief? How did you do it?
  • What stumbling blocks most affect your teachers?
  • What strategies will you use most often to persuade your students?
  • Why is it so hard to persuade someone when you are angry?
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6 comments

  1. UK politicians could learn a lot from this. Persuasion is as much about belief as knowledge – as much about hearts as minds. great read, as always.

    1. Thanks Abby,

      Actually, this kind of made me understand politicians more than I did before.

      I used to be all kinds of mad that they weren’t using logic. Now, I kind of understand. :/

  2. Great post as always. In training sales reps we distilled this down to the “Feel, Felt, Found” method. “I know how you feel, I felt the same way myself, let me tell you what I found.” This provides validation, empathy and information.

    1. Interesting. Do you find this method useful in other contexts as well?

  3. Absolutely so. This is not a departure from the points that you made. If you would persuade someone you should first validate their currently held position so as not to alienate them and then let them know that you shared that opinion until you obtained additional facts that they might not be privy to.

    1. Thanks, very interesting. 🙂

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