As a student and teacher of persuasive arts, I am always interested in a fresh take on the challenge of moving people to a course of action that will benefit the cause or concern of a client or self.
My go-to strategy dates back to 65 BC and the wisdom of the sophists, namely Aristotle, who taught us the keys to a persuasive argument, are ethos, logos, and pathos. We need to be ethical (ethos) so that people will believe what we say; we need to employ logic because our minds demand it before we adopt a course of action; and we must be authentically passionate (pathos) because without genuine emotion people will not be open to the action or belief you advance.
As lifelong learners, we tend to be reflexive, that is, we regularly reflect on our beliefs. One might call it reality testing, where Schön (1983) found the value of reflexive practice produced the capacity to reflect on our actions so as to continuously learn from our life experiences.
The trouble for those of us in the persuasion business is that most people are not reflective. Moreover, most people focus on reinforcing, or even rationalizing their intuitive beliefs as opposed to remaining open to emerging possibilities. Said differently, we are good at seeing the faults in others’ thinking but blind to our own cognitive shortfalls so we actively resist efforts to change our thinking.
I have long understood that if you want to introduce a new course of thought or action it helps to win over the hearts (and then) minds of the subject before you suggest a new course. John Maxwell (1998) told us, “People don’t at first follow worthy causes. People buy into the leader first, then the leader’s vision” (p. 145). Think Gandhi and how he changed people’s vision for obtaining freedom. We first buy into the leader and then we buy into what the leader has to say.
Through another lens yet similar in outcome, Jay Conger (1998) warned us to restrain our attempt to sell, and focus on the “negotiating and learning process” (p. 86) of human beings. Inherent in this plan is the importance of understanding the thoughts and dreams of the constituency you wish to influence. After all, to communicate effectively there is no replacement for the innate ability to see the world through another’s eyes. It develops genuine empathy, a natural antidote to the entrenched thoughts of righteous minds.
I picked up that little nugget from Jonathan Haidt (2012) who offers the idea that it is intuition that drives moral and political judgments. His research supports the theory that, “if you ask people to buy into something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion” (p. 59). Haidt recognizes luminary like Dale Carnegie cracked the code decades ago in his admonition to aspiring leaders: the only way to win an argument is to avoid it!
I find Haidt’s work interesting because of the ever-present challenge clients and others pose with respect to their need to change or alter seemingly intractable opinions of their opponents or constituents. It is common wisdom that we must seek to understand others before we can attempt to persuade them, but then what? Does this idea that intuition, not reason, drives our moral and political judgment have a place in the persuasive arts? I think so.
Let’s consider an emotionally charged issue like capital punishment.
In Nebraska right now, the state legislature repealed the death penalty much to the chagrin of the governor and apparently many other death penalty advocates. After the governor’s veto was overridden, he and his father jointly invested $200,000 to begin a fund to circulate a petition to put the issue on the ballot. [Notwithstanding they are billionaires, this is truly an admirable act of putting your money where your mouth is.]
This case is an ideal issue through which to view Haidt’s intuitionist theory and maybe learn how we may apply it to the challenge of creating persuasive actions. By the way, Haidt advised it is beneficial to stop thinking about emotion versus cognition and start thinking about intuition versus reasoning, this latter pair each flowing from the cognitive side. Additionally, it is helpful to recognize that reasoning serves intuition in creating post hoc justifications for the intuitive response. This may be counter-intuitive for many who may cling to the rationalist delusion that reason prevails over emotion. That’s an argument for another day. This piece explores the value of assuming the intuitionist’s perspective.
Before we go further on the capital punishment case, it bears pointing out that one state senator changed his vote, heck, his entire worldview, and voted to repeal the death penalty despite a lifetime of experiences that told him otherwise. [For more on that story see http://bit.ly/1LLJ4nt]. This 32-yearl-old, Reagan Republican did something that we seldom see in government today: he challenged his lifelong beliefs and voted to repeal. In other words, he chose the less-traveled road and bucked the intuitive reaction of his conservative being by sincerely reflecting on the merits of the decision and landing on a different square.
Haidt suggests this rarely happens. So, how can we can enter these decision structures and move people to do exactly what the young state senator did: amend his intuitive response by voting repeal the death penalty?
The rationalist in us may advocate confronting the opponent with a logical string of overwhelming evidence to support your case. I have many battle scars in futile attempts to prove that theory works. This is why I fervently adopt Haidt’s assertion that pure reasoning or rational argument will have little to do changing minds. However, if we recognize intuition rules, and understand people construct the reasoning for their judgments after the fact, we may gain a deeper insight into how we might deal with the intuitive judgment.
In the capital punishment ruling in Nebraska, the governor’s rationale for his strong support of the death penalty is not that it serves as a deterrent; or that it is justified in the bible (eye for an eye). Moreover, it seems the governor fears that by repealing the death penalty the state that he governs will appear to be soft on crime (See story http://bit.ly/1JHiXAx). Putting our empathy to use, seeing this issue from the governor’s perspective may give us deeper insight into his position.
Using the context of Haidt’s intuitionist theory, how would you go about engaging the governor? Would you: (a) talk about the failure of the death penalty as a deterrent to capital crimes? (b) appeal to his respect for life (he is staunchly Catholic and a Pro-Life advocate)? or, (c) would you engage him in dialogue about the importance of the state upholding a safe community by sending a strong signal to all criminals that lawlessness is not tolerated in Nebraska?
In the wise words of Dale Carnegie: “Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.” So, engaging the governor to gain a clear understanding of the formation of his intuitions holds promise in mutually discovering many ways to be tough on crime without invoking the death penalty.
Haidt’s book is well worth reading; particularly if you are interested in the way people hold opinions and form their worldview. For me, Haidt provides a framework for clearly seeing a path to engaging others in the mechanisms that form their judgments and how those judgments may be amended.
Conger, J. A. (1998). The necessary art of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, May-June 1998. Pp. 84-95.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Vintage Books.
Maxwell, J. C. (1998). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.