How to convince anyone of anything

[This topic was requested with a slightly different title:  How to make a convincing argument.]

The word argument itself makes people think of lawyers or divorce proceedings, which are poor connotations if you’re hoping to charm someone into agreeing with you. It’s worth shifting to the more positive word: convince. The goal is to persuade, to make them want to agree with you and feel happy, smart, or right, when they do. This has higher odds of success than trying to pin them into a mental submission hold, using logic to corner them into admitting stupidity. If you use your smarts to wrap someone’s mind into a pretzel, don’t be surprised if when you leave it will return to the shape they had before. And resent you for twisting them up too.

You should know that all of us are bad at convincing others and at being convinced by others. We’re even bad at acting on ideas we’ve agreed with for years. Read about  Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Socrates… some of our greatest minds, perhaps our greatest people, tried to convince their followers of  simple ideas (e.g. do not kill, love thy neighbor, the golden rule), ideas which were ignored and perverted by many of their followers in less than a generation. If this crowd of notables couldn’t pull it off with the name of god, the threat of damnation, or the gift enlightenment behind them, the odds for us can’t be great. Set your expectations accordingly.

No matter how persuasive you are most people will not hear you. Most people will not change. But why do you need anyone to change? It’s a question most compulsive arguers never ask. Perhaps all you need is to be heard, or feel smart, which can be done in other ways. The goal of sharpening of your own mind through the process, a goal you can’t fail at no matter how others respond, can be achieved without convincing anyone of anything. This might lead you into the pleasure of actual conversation.

If you must, a secret for pitching, persuading, selling or inspiring is to focus on the individual person you’re talking to. There is no magic recipe for convincing large numbers of people of something all at the same time.  That’s very hard to do. But if your goal is to convince one person of something,  you can listen to their interests and beliefs, using that knowledge as a foothold for the ideas you want them to consider. If you are talking to 5 people, identify the most influential or interested person in that room. That’s where you should start. A classic mistake is obsessing about the pitch or the argument, while ignoring the landscape of who is present in the room, their moods and their goals.

Instead, work the opposite way. Shut up and listen. Take time to understand the people or person you are trying to convince. Understand their goals, their core beliefs, their preferred kind of thinking (data driven, story driven, principle driven, goal driven) – what views do they already have and why?

It’s hard to convince anyone of anything if your mind isn’t just as open as you are demanding theirs to be. The best outcome of all might just be that in listening and learning you discover good questions you need to consider about your own beliefs and positions.

But most people find this boring. They can’t get their egos excited about thinking, much less listening. And then they attack blindly with generic arguments and fail. And then they blame the people they know nothing about, but want so much from, for their own failure. But if you can be generous of mind, and patient in effort, you will understand them. And once you understand them you might find the common ground where opportunity lives.

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