The Gentle Art of Persuasion

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Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

any of us who relish political, cultural, and even spiritual debates lament the paucity of opportunities for civil and respectful dialog that is thoughtful, intelligent, and, yes, sometimes even spirited. Unfortunately, in the polarized world in which we find ourselves, this sort of dialog seems all too often to degenerate into hate-filled diatribes, with all sides walking away convinced that those with opposing views are either ignorant or nefariousness or, more likely, both.

We can’t understand why our opponents don’t agree with us. Our ideas, principles, and preferences are obviously superior. Our adversaries would surely come to their senses if they would just climb down off their high horses and listen. And they must be aware that if they continue to refuse to see the error in their evil ways, they’ll be faced with a vicious onslaught of denigration and ridicule.

The problem, of course, is that those who disagree with us feel exactly the same way. This is what it means to be polarized. We’re convinced that we’re right and that our opponents are not only wrong but misguided and dangerous. Who could blame us for fighting to the death under such circumstances?

In this toxic environment, it would appear that each of us are faced with the following, generally awful, options.

  • Do Nothing. Remain stuck in our trenches. Likely outcome: continued collective smoldering pain, frustration, and division.
  • Disengage. Move to apathy. Likely outcome: diminished pain and frustration with the frozen battle lines, but at the expense of passionate engagement in community and life.
  • Intensify. Move to a scorched-earth battle to the death. Likely outcome: heightened widespread collateral damage all around.

But what if we’d like to escape this state of tribalized clannishness? What if we wish to do our part to seek a world in which we can have passionate but civilized disagreements? What if we want to consider our fellow citizens who disagree with us, not as deluded villains, but as those with whom we can work together toward common purpose? There is another option.

  • De-escalate. Move (unilaterally) to rhetorical nonviolence. Likely outcome: slow but virtuously effective path to reconciliation and harmony.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King vigorously championed the moral and pragmatic merits of physical nonviolence, especially against more powerful forces (such as those that are today rifting us apart). Perhaps we should follow their lead and work to build bridges across our divisions by ceasing to inflict verbal violence on our family, friends, neighbors, and compatriots.

How do we do that? How do we move to a place of gracious listening and acceptance? How do we overcome our natural inclination to delegitimize positions contrary to our own? I’ve got a couple of ideas, starting with the hard work of self-reflection.

If we are to have any hope that others might question their biases, beliefs, and positions, we have an obligation to question our own. We should ask ourselves whether we’re blind to the many ways each and every one of us is prone to the various forms of cognitive bias. Do we only seek positions and information sources that confirm rather than contradict our own? Do we discount opinions that run contrary to ours? Do we engage in groupthink? Are we subject to over-generalization and stereotyping? The list is long.

Self-reflection is the first step toward allowing us to accept as legitimate the conflicting viewpoints of others. A self-righteous position is neither respectful of those we are attempting to persuade, nor for that matter particularly effective.

Nearly 500 years ago, Blaise Pascal, famous French mathematician, physicist, philosopher, inventor, and theologian reminded us of this fact, suggesting empathy as a path to persuasion:

Eloquence … persuades by sweetness, not by authority… It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak … We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us …

Unless we are prepared to use coercion (or even a strict application of majority rule) in place of persuasion, we should take Pascal’s words to heart. It’s been my experience that even when you can’t get someone to agree with your position, being respectful of them and their position leads them to, at the very least, respect you, your position, and perhaps most importantly, your principles.

ll too often, unfortunately, we also fail to adequately embrace the fact that we must convince those who not only don’t agree with us, but also just don’t think like we do. Our particular ways seem so natural to us. It’s difficult to comprehend that others can be so different.

I have found David Keirsey’s take on temperament to be a useful way of thinking about interpersonal differences in a relatively simple, straightforward, and rational way. Some argue that schemes such as Keirsey’s fail to adequately characterize the wide range of differences between human beings. This is true. However, I would counter that the concepts that Keirsey employs provide a useful starting point for thinking about the things that tend to separate us.

Temperament can be thought of as a person’s fundamental nature, encompassing their modes of communication, action, attitudes, values, and talents. Temperament is expressed in how we interact with others in the workplace and in our everyday lives.

Keirsey’s temperament protocol is based on personality types expressed in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that many may be familiar with. Though based on the ideas of psychologist Carl Jung and the MBTI typology, Keirsey takes a slightly different perspective, identifying four fundamental human temperaments that he labels Artisans, Guardians, Rationals, and Idealists.

Keirsey achieves this simplification by focusing on 1) what we say, and 2) what we do. Concrete people tend to talk more about reality, while Abstract people talk more about ideas. Utilitarian people, for the most part, do what works, while Cooperative people tend to do what they believe to be right.

From Kerisey’s website:

As Concrete Cooperators, Guardians speak mostly of their duties and responsibilities, of what they can keep an eye on and take good care of, and they’re careful to obey the laws, follow the rules, and respect the rights of others.

As Abstract Cooperators, Idealists speak mostly of what they hope for and imagine might be possible for people, and they want to act in good conscience, always trying to reach their goals without compromising their personal code of ethics.

As Concrete Utilitarians, Artisans speak mostly about what they see right in front of them, about what they can get their hands on, and they will do whatever works, whatever gives them a quick, effective payoff, even if they have to bend the rules.

As Abstract Utilitarians, Rationals speak mostly of what new problems intrigue them and what new solutions they envision, and always pragmatic, they act as efficiently as possible to achieve their objectives, ignoring arbitrary rules and conventions if need be.

Guardians are 40–45% of the US population. Most of our Presidents have been Guardians, including George Washington, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Harry Truman.

Artisans are 30–35% of the US population. Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush, and John F. Kennedy were all Artisans.

Idealists are 15–20% of the US population. There have been no Idealist Presidents.

Rationals are 5–10% of the US population. John Adams, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were Rational Presidents.

Note that 70–80% of the US population are either Guardians or Artisans. Both are types who tend to focus on the concrete over the abstract, the here and now over future possibilities. Idealists and Rationals may wish to be particularly mindful of how they’re different.

No matter what your temperament, effective communication should begin by recognizing how different people see the world, especially when they’re different from you. We should all challenge ourselves to learn how to translate between temperaments.

here’s another perspective on our differences that we should not ignore — our moral positions. Recent findings in a field of study called moral psychology are discussed at great length in Jonathan Haidt’s quite interesting book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Though the book ultimately examines the differences in the moral matrix of Republican vs Democratic (and to a lesser extent Libertarian) voters, Haidt also presents several interesting and important insights into the psychological, sociological, and even anthropological underpinnings of our sense of morality.

Insight #1. Though we tend to believe otherwise, our moral positions rapidly spring from an intuitive feeling response. Our moral sense of whether something is right or wrong comes from the gut. We just know.

Insight #2. Moral reasoning, the conscious rationales for our moral positions, post-date our intuitive responses. Groupthink, confirmation bias, and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance are all symptoms of post-hoc reasoning. We have very effective internal Press Secretaries — the reasoning function that rationalizes our predetermined intuitive moral positions.

Insight #3. When we do manage to change our moral intuitions, it is almost always through personal conversations and interactions or through compelling stories. To change hearts, we have to work through hearts. Battles of the moral reasoning wits don’t work. Our Press Secretaries are too good, even in the face of convincing counter arguments. It is only through conversation with those we trust and respect that we become open to changing our intuitions.

Our moral matrices, suggests Haidt, evolved as a means of binding people together, first in hunter-gatherer groups and then into larger settlements and civilizations beginning with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago. The human evolutionary response to the various, often hostile, environments we came to occupy on the earth was an amazing ability to get along in inclusive and trustworthy groups. Haidt points out that among all species:

Human beings are the world champions of cooperation beyond kinship…

Though our moral foundations are built-in to our fundamental human nature, cultural evolution and personal experiences mean that our moral judgments are expressed in different ways. Haidt suggests, however, that the basic fundamental moral matrix we collectively share is made up of six foundations, determined by the evolutionary challenges that our species faced.

  • Care/Harm. Cherishing and protecting others from harm, particularly children and those who are vulnerable.
  • Fairness/Cheating. Rendering justice according to shared rules, the challenge of group cooperation without getting exploited.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal. Standing with your group, family, tribe, or nation to form and maintain coalitions as well as promote intragroup cohesion.
  • Authority/Subversion. Submitting to tradition and legitimate authority within our social hierarchies.
  • Sanctity/Purity. Feeling that some things are noble, pure, or sacred, while others are base and degraded.
  • Liberty/Oppression. Freedom from coercion by those who wish to dominate us.

The Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating foundations primarily address individual behaviors, caring for the most vulnerable among us while guarding against the freeloader problem.

The Loyalty/Betrayal and Authority/Subversion foundations focus on intragroup behaviors — maintaining group cohesion and mutually-beneficial relationships to reap the rewards of group support and cooperation. They’re about community.

Libertarians and Progressives tend to place little emphasis on these two foundations, as well as the Sanctity/Purity foundation. Most on the right, however, place significant weight on all of Haidt’s foundations. He suggests that the right’s emphasis on a broader range of moral foundations gives them a natural advantage in politics.

The Liberty/Oppression foundation does not seem to have been well tested by Haidt or other researchers. He does suggest, however, that this foundation seems to have been at least partially embraced by those on both the left and the right, though expressed differently. Haidt suggests that Libertarians care about the Liberty/Oppression foundation “almost to the exclusion of all other concerns,” giving it primacy in libertarian political thought.

aidt likens our moral positions — those intuitive gut feelings — to an elephant, a smart but non-reasoning beast. He further suggests that our moral reasoning, the post-hoc response to our intuitions, is the elephant’s rider, able to nudge the elephant at times, but mostly along for the ride.

Moral intuitions and judgments are the elephant’s call. Our reasoning selves were a later evolutionary addition. The rider serves the elephant, not the other way around. Albert Einstein would have agreed:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

To change hearts, we must speak to the elephant, not simply refute arguments. If we come from a position of moralistic righteousness, confirmed in our own minds as well as those in our tribe as the correct position, we will fail to cross the moral divides that separate us. We must have a true conversation. Says Haidt:

The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.

Modern channels of instant communication make it increasingly difficult for our political elephants to communicate with each other. In a galaxy far, far away, many disparaged the soundbites of television news. We were appalled at the plethora of political discourse that was crammed into 30 to 60 seconds.

Our modern avenues of communication through tweets, memes, and Facebook arguments make that length of time now seem like an eternity. The time we seem to be allotting for even a modicum of reflection and discussion — not to mention civil discourse — is evaporating into nothingness.

The framers of the US Constitution, even as they sought to create a political system that would protect us from tyrants, also understood the dangers of mob rule — tyranny of the majority. Our republican form of government was constructed, in part, to allow for more interpersonal interactions, more time to consider alternative points of view, and more time for our elephants to have their conversations.

Though I embrace and applaud rapid widespread modern communication, in many ways it may be undermining productive political discourse. Our fear-driven polarized political tribalism may be an indication that the elephants are running amok.

Reason is not likely to provide the way out of this conundrum. But it should by now be clear that political change is not going to happen by keeping-on-keeping-on, and not by doubling down on what’s been done in the past. If change is to occur, we’ve got to get unstuck from our propensity for binary thinking and begin dismantling our auto-correction-deficient echo chambers.

Unless we find a way to have conversations with everyone’s elephants — with all their different moral positions — we could well be doomed to remain in Groundhog Day. The film’s protagonist had to change in order to extricate himself from the torture of his repetitious reality.

Written by

Retired engineer; former university faculty; sometime statewide political candidate; part-time raconteur and provocateur.

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