The Road to Persuasion

The best way to persuade someone is to martial facts, develop multiple lines of argument, refute all your opponent’s views, and never give an inch. Right? Well, probably not.

The most effective negotiators and debaters, as described by Adam Grant in Think Again, employ three surprising approaches that can actually help change people’s minds.*

Be simple.

Don’t pile up too many arguments. Such an approach can backfire for two reasons. One is that doing so can make listeners feel threatened emotionally and intellectually. A natural response is to throw up defenses. Their minds go into overdrive looking for flaws in and counterarguments against what we are saying.

Another problem is that not all our arguments will be equally strong. Listeners have an uncanny radar for picking out the weakest argument, tearing that down, and then on the basis of that dismissing our whole case.
Counterintuitively it is better to focus on just one or two of our strongest ideas. Doing so doesn’t tend to trigger resistance as much, and it leaves us less vulnerable to a counterargument.

Be humble.

Admit when someone else is right. When we say that we are wrong or don’t know something, we don’t weaken our case. Rather this has two unexpected benefits.

One is that it makes us look more objective and thus lends credibility to everything else we say. This makes people less defensive and more open to our ideas.

Another result is that when we agree on common ground, it lessens the adversarial nature of our encounter. Instead of being opponents, we move together toward finding good solutions for all.

A variation on this is to affirm those you disagree with whenever possible. Tell them that you believe they are people of sound judgment and that their motives are good. The temperature in such a discussion will go down as well as the defenses.

Be curious.

The most effective persuaders ask many more questions than average persuaders. By honestly trying to find out what someone thinks, we can learn more about what motivates them, where we can affirm them, and thus work toward ideas that will meet their concerns and ours.

Genuine open-ended questions can also do a better job of helping people examine their own viewpoints than outright declarations. For example, we can ask:

* Something I’d love to know is, What evidence would change your mind?
* I’m curious, what do you think are the disadvantages or downsides of your view?
* I’m less concerned about my solution being the right one than finding a solution that really works. If you don’t like what I’m suggesting, how would you solve the problem instead?
* Tell me more. Why do you feel strongly about this issue?

In all this, we don’t have to convince someone on the spot. In fact, we probably won’t. But asking questions can plant a seed of doubt that can bear fruit in the long run.

Sometimes, the person who can best persuade us to think differently is ourselves.

*See chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Adam Grant, Think Again (New York: Viking, 2021), pp. 97-160.

photo credit: Pixabay RyanMcGuire

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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