We live in an increasingly polarized world. The moment you have an opinion, you are seen as taking sides, and you are immediately either an ally or enemy. If you are an enemy, you need to be destroyed or at least silenced. If your opinion differs from mine, then you are wrong, crazy, or straight evil. To persuade someone whose opinion differs from yours in such an environment is rather difficult. The moment you voice your beliefs, those who disagree will stop listening. So how do you persuade and influence others in the post-factual world?
Focus on what matters
When pushing your ideas, don’t try to overwhelm others with too many facts. Pick only a couple of the strongest ones and focus on them. There is little point in listing ten reasons why you are right. What it leads to is showing weaker and weaker reasons and giving the other person an opportunity to lock on them and show you how weak they are. Not to mention that they may decide to ignore you just to spite you since you are such a know-it-all. You are coming across as preachy, and most people don’t like that.
This is often a problem for those who tend to prepare well for any potential discussion or disagreements. They have their facts straight, and they have lots of them. And it is not helping. Yes, be prepared, so you have your data straight, but instead of preaching, listen. Asking the right questions is a much more powerful way to persuade anyone than overwhelming them with data. Instead of arguing straight away why you are right, listen to the other side’s arguments and acknowledge the valid points. By agreeing, you are defusing some of the resistance, and you can then present your case. It will be seen as much more reasonable and will be more acceptable to the other party.
The problem with overwhelming people with data and science is nicely seen in the case of vaccination. Many people in the western world are strong anti-vaxxers even though they benefit from a hundred years of vaccination that eliminated many major diseases and improved their life expectancy. In Think Again, Adam Grant discusses that once you try to persuade someone with more data and won’t succeed, you strengthen their resolve. It seems that the actual act of resisting your argument immunizes (no pun intended) the person against any future arguments as they become more convinced and set in their ways. You can’t persuade people with data about vaccination being safe if they hear from their friends on social media that it causes autism. Something that is, by the way, thoroughly debunked and never was a thing. Logic doesn’t work. You need a different approach.
So what you do instead? You ask questions and let people persuade themselves. By allowing the person with concerns to voice them out loud and empathizing with them, you build credibility. You are not trying to tell them what to do. It is their life, and they need to decide how to live it. All you do is ask questions, listen to answers, answer the person’s questions, and with permission adding your perspective. You still use data, but only when you are asked a question. You are not trying to pressure the person. You are honest with what your perspective is, but it is their life and their choice. By being respectful and not preachy, you build credibility, and ultimately you are more likely to be listened to.
Let see this on an example from a galaxy far far away, following a model suggested by Adam Grant. Imagine you are a member of the Rebel Alliance fighting the Galactic Empire. However, your father is a big fan of Sith Lord Darth Vader. What do you do? Pilling up tons of data and reasons why Darth Vader is bad wouldn’t work on someone who is his fan.
So you start asking questions instead. “I’d like to understand your feelings about him better.”
The father may answer, “well, he is the most powerful person I’ve seen, and I like his cool black outfit.”
You react, “is there anything you dislike about him?”
“Maybe all the choking and killing,” says the father.
“Well, nobody is perfect, right?” you answer.
“Yeah, but there is too much killing.”
“It sounds like you have some reservations. What’s prevented you from abandoning him if you feel there is too much killing?”
“I’m afraid he will choke me in retribution,” says the father.
“That is a reasonable fear. It has happened before. I would be worried too. Are there any principles so important to you that you would be willing to take the risk?”
You are helping your father realize what he knows deep down, that Darth Vader is no good, but there were some fears and risks that prevented him from abandoning him. And for Star Wars fans, no, you are not Luke Skywalker in this scenario.
It is often the pressure that people resist rather than the actual advice. They may feel that you are right but don’t want to appear weak, indecisive, or like they can’t live their own life. We all want to feel in control. If someone tries to pressure us into something, it feels like we would relinquish that control to them. During a motivational interview, you ask open-ended questions, listen attentively, and affirm the person’s right to choose and ability to change.
Voice uncertainties and doubts
We are more likely to trust those with a so-called scientific approach who admit that there are things they don’t know or that things are not as black and white. When you voice the uncertainties, doubts, and unknowns about an issue, you become more credible. You are not seen as a preacher who would just push their beliefs and refuse any other interpretation of the world. You seem more unbiased and, therefore, more trustworthy. When you admit doubt and uncertainty, people listen more attentively to the message.
Simplifying complex topics is an excellent way to explain them, but if you need to persuade others, oversimplification may not work. You need to introduce nuance, shades of gray, uncertainties, and that means complexifying the topic rather than simplifying it. Avoid a black and white view of the topic when trying to persuade the opposing side. Feel free to mention caveats and contingencies.
Putting it all together
If you want to persuade others, then listen first. People need to feel listened to and understood. Only then are they willing to open up and listen to you. Don’t overwhelm others with data, as with each new data point, you are diminishing the value of the previous points. When you speak, ask lots of questions. Each of us is most easily persuaded by ourselves. If you guide the person through a thinking process, they will eventually convince themselves. This means you need to feel authentic. They need to feel like you have their good on top of your mind. It means you need to provide trustworthy information, and that means introducing nuance and explain that not everything is rosy, and there are potential issues and pitfalls even with what you argue for.
What is your take on the topic? How do you persuade others who don’t listen to facts? How do you fight the fake news? What strategy worked for you the best?
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