Persuading Others

"Convince a person against his will, and he'll be of the same opinion still." Paraphrase of Samuel Butler, author

Most of us spend a large portion of our waking hours trying to convince someone of something: our parents, siblings, spouses, employers, co-workers, friends, even strangers. We’re driven to “sell” our views, not just to make a living, but in virtually everything we do or think, such as our views on religion or politics (heaven help us).

Why do we feel compelled to convince others to accept our views?

A psychiatrist, whom I read, said that we feel uncertain of our position and views and that, by persuading others, we vindicate our views to ourselves, solidifying our shaky convictions. The acceptance of our views by others affirms and validates our views, making us feel more confidant and less insecure. When we fail to persuade others, we often feel defeated and, worse, we subconsciously, at least, question our own “convictions”. We are forever proving Shakespeare’s facetious prod, “Methinks he doth protest too much”; that is, the more intensely and frequently we seek to force our views on others (and the more emotionally we do so), the more we prove that we are not certain that we are correct.

If we have conviction in our own opinions, there is no need to “sell” them. If someone asks, fine; otherwise, isn't it better to keep our opinions to ourselves, thus avoiding acrimony and alienation of others? This is easy to say and hard to do, as it’s always tempting to grab center stage in any group and articulate our views.

The irony is that we can “sell” our views best by not selling them at all. Silence alone can often dethrone a boisterous protagonist. Even better, if we will only ask questions, while avoiding stating our views, and do so with no edge, evincing a sincere interest in the loud-speaker’s views, we will make the speaker and others relax, and we often take the floor away from him/her (him) by our lack of emotionalism and the intelligence of our questions. This also gives us the opportunity to ascertain what the other person thinks, to get to the bottom of his views and to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his position.  (Heaven forbid, his views may be more sound than ours!)  As the great author and teacher of public speaking and self-improvement courses, Dale Carnegie (1888-1955), said,

“I know what I know; the trick is to find out what the other person knows.”

The other person may know more or at least something different. Why not keep our opinions to ourselves, unless asked for them, and learn the views and reasoning of the other person?

While Carnegie’s is great advice, most of us, all of our lives, will surely remain absolutely driven to “sell” our opinions.  Besides, our jobs or positions (e.g., as parents) may dictate that we do so.  So, when we are compelled to sell our views, the question remains,

“How can we best persuade others to accept our views?”

An excellent lawyer and sublime human being (forgive me, my gentle father) often repeated this memorable epigram, possibly his spin on the poet Samuel Butler (1835-1902, English author of Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh), with which I began this essay, but it is so important that it bears repeating -- and memorizing:

“Convince a person against his will, and he’ll be of the same opinion still.”

It has taken me seven decades to accept that profundity.  It is patently pointless to try to change anyone’s mind about anything on which he/she has a firm opinion.  So, the short answer to the problem of “persuading others” is simply: Don’t try. As Winston Churchill (1874-1965, beloved Premier of Great Britain during WWII and possibly the 20th Century's greatest orator) taught us,

“A fanatic can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

An ex-Premier of Bermuda, Sir John Swan, once wisely observed,

“Extremism defeats all arguments.”

And he might have added, “And makes enemies in the bargain.”

Arguments ensue; debaters become polarized, often heated and sometimes estrange even dearest loved ones, and, worst of all, the closed mind remains closed. To slightly paraphrase the theologian and founder of Christian Science (Mary Baker Eddy, 1821-1910), a great master of the English language and adapter of Kantian and Hegelian insights to metaphysics:

Nothing can [or will] enter a mind that is already full.

It recalls the entertaining spoof in Jonathon Swift’s priceless allegory, Gulliver’s Travels, wherein war was waged over a dispute as to which end of the egg was proper to break. Neither side was convinced, and war was waged. No, lads and lasses, there is no “persuading” firmly-held opinions. We can change other’s opinions only when they enjoy some degree of an open mind, i.e., where opinions still remain inchoate.

However, even where the other person has some degree of open mind, and there is thus an opportunity to persuade, still the most efficacious approach is to ask questions, questions which point them, often circuitously, to a different point of view. This is taught in many courses on the art of selling, and it is the essence of the lawyer’s question when doing cross-examination. Get people saying “Yes,” to a series of initial questions with which they will likely agree, and their answers may gently compel them, or delicately entrap them into adopting the position that you seek.

Thus, our declarative statements or overt opinions only offend others of opposite view and tend to close even partially open minds. Volition makes for more collegial fealty than adamant voices or hand cuffs. The Game (or Art) of Persuasion is to induce a voluntary change of views -- a triumph of the skilled dialectician. The above mentioned author, Dale Carnegie, wrote, in his still popular 1936 triumph, How to Win Friends and Influence People (which teaches more about the art of dealing with others than any book in print),

“If you want to get along with others, be quick to compliment, slow to criticize, ask a lot of questions, and, above all, be a good listener.”

Still, the problem remains: When we encounter the closed mind, as we often do, what is our alternative? Sadly, there is none, save to leave it (and, therefore, ourselves) alone, in peace. This should come as a great relief. As the psychiatrist and founder of Attitudinal Healing, Jerold Jampolsky, observed,

Peace of mind comes from not wanting to control others.

This thesis is central to Buddhism as well. Think of the incredible feeling of being free of the compulsion, or even of any desire, to control others; there is no need to make them “like us”; let people be themselves; indeed, people may be far better off being themselves, for better or worse.  (If only our demagogic leaders could recognize this and cease trying to force the world into a mold like ours.)  If we can simply extinguish our conscious and subconscious desire to control others, we will simultaneously release ourselves from the burden of controlling others; that “job” mercifully vaporizes, and we will feel ever so much more freedom.  An enormous weight will then be lifted from our shoulders. Similarly, when engaged in lively discourse, instead of volunteering dogmatic opinions in stern tones, what if we simply listened and couched our opinions as questions? If asked with no verbal or physical edge, questions rarely offend, and they stimulate animated dialectics and softened polemics.  Such banter can then be enjoyable, and, if it takes a turn for the worse, change the subject.

Should we expect to enjoy the ability to persuade others to our views, if we are not open to change our own views?  The first question we might ask ourselves is,

“Is my mind still open?”

That “Only charlatans are certain” has been espoused by history’s greatest thinkers, including Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Emerson and Churchill. So, before we seek to emasculate the views of others, we should make certain that our own minds remain open to better logic, better data, or more mature perspectives. Changing our minds, due to better data or more sound logic, is not a sign of instability; it is a sign of intelligence and of personal growth.

Questioning our own views may be a substantive advantage as well, because, heaven help us, we need to change our views or at least allow room for multiple rational views, however juxtaposed. David Hume (1711-1777, Scotland's most distinguished philosopher) allowed for different views:

“Reasonable men may be allowed to differ..."

How refreshing: There may be room for ration reach antipodal conclusions! Indeed, in the Middle Ages, the goal of thinkers was to prove their preconceived notions; in the Renaissance, it was to ask questions.  So, we can and do (and for world peace, must be allowed to) differ on many things. (Historically, religions (which have changed mightily over the past 4,000 years) have been the greatest offenders at forcibly imposing their divinities on others (not infrequently for personal gain), even at the price of torture and death, phenomena still extant in our 21st Century world.) What can these aggressors have to fear, more than their lack of conviction in their own views?   We may join Shakespeare and think "they doth protest too much.”

Even if we can became so rational as to the follow the above wisdom in our social dealings, most of us will continue to rail at our children, determined to bring them to our way of thinking, but that, too, is a long shot. Consider this tenet of Confucius and Buddha, both c. 450 BC:

Children need models, not critics.

In sum, persuading others is, in general, a losing cause, a zero sum game. Unless someone asks your opinion, free yourself of the burden of trying. Live and let live, even with different views.  Ask them questions; learn their views and take it under advisement, withholding your own, unless asked, and, even then, tread lightly, lest you offend and accomplish nothing.

When your job or your familial obligations require that you persuade others, begin with questions, and be a good listener. Use your questions to tippy toe ever so gently into the perceived flaws in others’ logic, eschewing declarative and contentious remarks, glances or body language, which imply a form of force and close the minds of others.  Then, be alert and ready to change your own view, if reason dictates, and, if not, continue to patiently ask questions and try to guide your listener to change his/her own mind, because, in the final analysis, none of us ever really changes anyone else’s mind; at the very best, we persuade others to change their own minds, voluntarily. Hard as it is to accept, we don’t persuade others; only they persuade themselves.

It took me decades to realize the foregoing, a lifetime really. It’s too bad, because I wasted much time and elevated my blood pressure endless times for no good reason. There is great freedom and peace of mind to be gained from simply letting go and from abandoning the obsession to control others, unless your work or familial duties obligate you to persuade. In those cases, I try to remember, I can’t change their minds; only they can do that.  Besides, many of the staunchest views of my youth, I long ago abandoned as illogical relics.  As Goethe (1749-1832, epic poet) said, "Doubt grows with knowledge."  So, I try to relax with my views and just keep learning.

P.S. After my only editor, my wife, kindly edited the foregoing, she quipped, “Great piece, but when will you stop trying to control me?” Ouch!  (She was smiling -- I hope.) So, there you have it: Realizing what I should do and doing it remain two quite different things. I must return to my coveted, self-authored epitaph: “Lee deserved an ‘A’ for effort.” That’s all that I can say in my defense, and I’ll leave the merits of my observations for you to judge.