How to Persuade?
Persuasion is a subtle art, and questions are its greatest tools.
Persuasion isn’t about annihilating your opponents. It’s about listening to them, communicating with them, and advocating for your own beliefs in a compelling way.
The author had always planned to work construction jobs with a friend when he’d finished high school. One day though, his friend’s mom picked up on the topic. She asked him, “What are you going to do next, honey?” After he answered, she asked a follow-up question. And then another one. And another one. By the end of the interview, he had decided that he wanted to become a lawyer.
His friend’s mother didn’t make a single evaluative statement to persuade him — she simply let him persuade himself. That’s the power of asking questions.
“The art of persuasion is not about winning people over but bringing people closer together.”
Know your objective, your facts, and your jury.
Real-life persuasion is more about gently moving your conversation partner closer toward your own beliefs. For that to happen, you need to know where you’re going, how to get there, and how to take them with you.
Before you start arguing with people, you need to know what it is you’re trying to achieve with your argument.
But convincing people 30 to 50 percent is a reasonable goalpost. At 30 to 50 percent, your opponent has begun to see your point and is already challenging some of his own beliefs.
The more clearly measurable you make your objective, the easier it’ll be to plan out your argument. So make sure you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve.
This means you’ll have to gather evidence that supports your point. With the internet and a critical mind at your disposal, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Questions can help you understand what they believe and why they believe it — and how you can best talk about it. They can also help you gauge whether your jury is open to being persuaded at all.
Different types of questions work in different situations.
Softball questions are easy questions that give your counterpart lots of room to answer and typically don’t aim at making a point. A good example of a non-leading, softball question is: “So, governor, what inspired you to run for office?” or “Honey, when did you last take the trash out?”
Softball questions can help you map out the ground for the debate. They show your conversation partners that you’re interested in what they have to say, and can lead into your argument in a neutral way.
Sooner or later though, you’ll want to ask harder questions that help you either confirm your point, or slow down and contradict your opponent’s point. This is where hardball questions come in. These are leading questions that put the focus on the question itself rather than the answer. Consider the question: “Didn’t I tell you to take out the trash this morning?” The question itself already implies the answer is yes.
To be convincing, be sincere.
To win your audience’s trust, you need to show that you’re genuinely passionate about your beliefs. Genuine emotions are so important because they show your audience that you really care.
To win your audience’s trust, you need to show that you’re genuinely passionate about your beliefs. Genuine emotions are so important because they show your audience that you really care. So try and get emotional about the point you’re trying to get across. Sometimes, this will be easy.
But how does it work for more mundane issues, like getting your kids to show up for dinner on time?
What you’ll need to do is find a bigger principle to get passionate about. In the case of dinner time, you could make your kids understand that the issue isn’t really about them missing a meal or two; it’s about them not respecting your time, and your shared time as a family. If you can latch onto a higher ideal, like family values, fairness, or justice, you can get sincerely passionate about the smallest of issues.
Three main killers of sincerity and credibility: insults, hypocrisy, and lying. If you’re not careful, they can easily destroy your argument. But if you know how to use credibility killers against your opponent, they can work wonders for you.
Impeach an argument by questioning someone’s facts, logic, or character.
The first way to impeach someone’s argument is by disputing the facts they’re basing their argument on. Impeachment via facts can be as simple as asking your opponent how he’s come to know what he’s claiming. If you can show that his so-called “facts” are really just hearsay, his argument suffers a huge blow.
If your opponent’s facts are correct, but she still reaches a completely different conclusion than you, you may have to use the second method of impeachment: disputing her logic.
The third form of impeachment is the most effective but also the hardest. This is impeachment of character. Ideally, you’re trying to prove to an audience that your opponent is habitually lying, unfavorably biased, or morally corrupt.
Sometimes, you can even impeach someone by impeaching a person they’re connected with. This is called hitchhiking.
Fine-tune your persuasion skills by measuring, repeating, and repackaging.
To seal your questions against attack, you need to measure your words. Your questions should be worded simply and precisely.
Once you’ve finely crafted your question, use repetition to drive it home. Repeating ourselves isn’t a rhetorical skill we usually strive for — but we should. Because the more you repeat something, the more your audience will understand how important it is.
The author once questioned a man who was accused of stabbing his own wife to death. The author’s strategy was to ask him a different version of the same question over and over: “What did your wife say after you stabbed her the first time? What did she say when you stabbed her the second time?” By the end, the jury had heard the phrase “when you stabbed your wife” so many times that it didn’t take much more to convince them of his guilt.
If you’re struggling to take down an opponent’s argument, you can try repackaging it. Repackaging is when you reduce an argument to absurdity by putting it in different words. The author often used this strategy when advocating for victims of domestic violence. If a defense attorney suggested a woman should have known better than to go back to her abusive partner, the author would twist this statement to the extreme: “So you’re saying it’s her fault she was abused?”
If your argument is failing, divert, deconstruct, double-down, or play the victim.
There are a few strategies that can help you mitigate the damage of a failed argument.
The best cure, as always, is prevention. You can avoid backing yourself into a corner by having a good sense of your weaknesses. When preparing your argument, you might be tempted to linger on the bits and pieces that work particularly well. But you should spend just as much time preparing and padding your weakest points — instead of simply hoping that they won’t come up.
The first thing you can do is create a diversion. People usually don’t like to be interrupted. But if you interrupt them with questions, you can stop their momentum and steer the conversation in a different direction, while keeping the focus on them.
Strategy number two is deconstruction. When someone is trying to lay the founding blocks for a devastating argument, try to challenge each tiny assumption they make. Questions like “How do you know that?” and “How can you be sure of this?” will slow down your opponent tremendously.
Our third strategy stems from another old saying: “There’s no point in flogging a dead horse — but then it can’t hurt either.” If you have a fact or argument on your side that works particularly well, just double down. Actually, you can keep on doubling and doubling down until you figure out how to get out of the argument.
If all else fails, you can always play strategy number four: the victim card. That’s not particularly dignified, but there’s a reason why it works — people are naturally empathetic to victims. Former speaker of the house Paul Ryan played the victim card when President Obama attacked him during the debate around the Affordable Care Act. Obama claimed Ryan cared less about children than he did. Ryan responded with a series of questions that highlighted the unfairness of Obama’s attack. One of these was, “How do you think it makes me feel when you misrepresent my faith and my spiritual beliefs?”
To master the art of persuasion, set the right expectations and stay open.
Persuasion isn’t about winning — it’s about successful communication. And in order to succeed, you need to set the right expectations.
How many times have you seen someone’s view changed by a single conversation? Probably not very many, especially when it comes to deeper, contentious issues like gun control and abortion. That’s why it’s inadvisable to get over ambitious with your aims. If you do, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
As the old adage goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” Your aim when persuading shouldn’t be to force your listeners to agree with everything you say. It should be to guide them to draw their own conclusions based on the merits of your argument.
That’s what the art of persuasion is all about. Questions are a great way to gently nudge your audience in the right direction, but you’ll have to let them take the final steps of persuading themselves on their own. And you’ll need to remember that everyone listens in their own unique way — even if you’re talking in front of a big group.
There’s one final thing you need to remember as you practice: when you’re trying to persuade others, you need to be persuadable yourself. This means staying receptive to new facts and perspectives, and adjusting your beliefs when you’re confronted with contradictory evidence. After all, you can’t expect others to change their minds based on a good argument if you’re not willing to do the same.
When it comes to persuasion, it’s all about asking questions. If you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve, which facts are relevant to your argument, and who you’re talking to, the right questions can help you bypass people’s defenses and win them over. Questions give you the power to repeat key points, show a fault in an opponent’s argument, and lead people to draw conclusions of their own that confirm your beliefs.