My friend and colleague Kevin is a master persuader. I’ve never seen him get dragged into an argument, but I have seen him influence argumentative people (dozens of times) with a rather artful form of mental judo. His approach is simple and extremely effective. Here it is in three steps:
1) He summarizes the other person’s position like this: “I hear you saying this…. Did I get that right?” He does this in a non-confrontational way. He’s really trying to understand the other person’s point of view. Sometimes, when the person hears their belief/idea/position summarized, he or she becomes aware of the flaw or flaws in their thinking. If not, he moves on to step number two.
2) Kevin asks leading questions to help the person “discover” the flaw in their reasoning for himself or herself. He wants them to own the discovery. At no point does he make a statement or judgement about their position. He does not introduce facts or rational counterpoints or identify the flaw in their thinking. He just asks questions. If they still don’t see the mistake in their reasoning, he moves on to step number three.
3) He stops talking. After he has planted the seed of doubt by asking questions (in a non-threatening way) he disengages. He does not argue his point. He does not keep asking the same questions. He simply lets the seed germinate in the mind of the other person.
Trees of knowledge usually sprout from the seeds Kevin plants.
His secret is to use the Socratic approach to introduce his ideas. He questions your position without directly questioning your position. He is so skilled at this method of persuasion that he makes it seem as if he’s doing you a favor. I know this because he’s done it to me a number of times. And even after I “catch” him using this technique… I typically thank him for helping me see the light.
Isn’t that dynamic what we want?
The best way to win an argument is to avoid arguing in the first place… that’s assuming the point of the argument is to persuade someone to adopt your point of view. The second you put them on the defensive they will stop listening to you and entrench their own beliefs. Kevin understands this principle and avoids putting people on the defensive at all costs. That’s what makes him so very persuasive.
I wrote this post in response to the venomous vitriol spewing from every traditional and social media source and aimed at anyone with the audacity to have an opposing point of view. Vitriol is poison. It doesn’t change minds, it cements them.
In order for our society to evolve beyond this state of angry divisiveness, we need to take a different approach. One that actually works. The geniuses that came up with the Google Pixel 2 commercial said it best: “When you change a period to a question mark, it changes everything.”
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