How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded

May 21, 2014 — 2 Comments

9780062218339_p0_v5_s260x420Every now and then, ideas I have for blog posts indirectly relate to larger online conversations. Even before this week, I was planning on talking about this chapter from Think Like A Freak. Given the discussions I’ve seen on Twitter (as a result of blog posts and movements in evangelicalism), I hope you find this useful.

As a bit of background, Think Like A Freak is a kind of practical how-to counterpart to Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, books I’d recommend you add to your summer reading, if you haven’t read them (and even if it’s been a while). In those books, authors Steven Levitt (a University of Chicago economist) and Stephen Dubner (an award winning writer) explain the results of their research to dig beneath the surface of cultural trends and phenomena. In this book, they explain some basic principles for how to think and approach problems they way they did in their books.

The second to last chapter is titled “How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded,” and it is a brief goldmine of practical advice if you spend time on the internet (particularly Twitter). Especially in light of recent online discussions, here’s some important tips to keep in mind if you’re truly trying to persuade people.

Understand how hard persuasion will be – and why

Especially if you are having a discussion with people who are intellectual, keep this in mind. Persuasion (which is different than proving a point) requires you to move someone from thinking one way about a subject to thinking differently. If you’re talking to smart people (or people who think they are smart), this is even more difficult. As Levitt and Dubner point out:

Smart people simply have more experience with feeling they are right, and therefore have greater confidence in their knowledge, whatever side of an issue they’re on. But being confident you are right is not the same as being right (171).

Further, smarter people have probably thought about the issue more (if they’re arguing about it), and “when someone is heavily invested in his or her opinion, it is inevitably hard to change the person’s mind” (171-172).

So how do you deal with this? Don’t assume that a person’s position is based on pure fact and logic. If it were, all you would need to do is deconstruct their position logically and they should be persuaded. If that doesn’t happen, then it means there are deeper ideological and possibly emotional factors playing into their position. A negative way of framing it (which will get you nowhere) is to call it some variants of this “herd thinking.” That certainly plays a part, but pointing it out will undermine your efforts.

It’s not me; it’s you

Keep in mind that persuasion is difficult because it does not rest on logic alone. This points to the fact that a lot depends on how you present the argument. As Levitt and Dubner explain,

Whenever you set out to persuade someone, remember that you are merely the producer of the argument. The consumer has the only vote that counts. Your argument may be factually indisputable and logically airtight but if it doesn’t resonate for the recipient, you won’t get anywhere. (173)

In other words, you have to keep your audience in view. If your goal is persuasion, then your argument will look much different than if your goal is merely to prove the other person’s position wrong. In the evangelical world, we see an awful lot of the latter and much less of the former. The latter is preaching to the choir while the former is actually capable of producing dialogue.

Don’t pretend your argument is perfect

As Levitt and Dubner say, “Show us a ‘perfect’ solution and we’ll show you our pet unicorn” (173). The same goes for theological argumentation. “If you want your argument to be taken seriously, you’d do well to admit the potential downsides,” Levitt and Dubner point out (175). Likewise, you’d do well to acknowledge tensions and potential problems in your espoused theological positions. That’s not the same as admitting they are wrong. Rather, it’s acknowledging your creatureliness when it comes to what you know and how you know it. We worship a perfect savior, but have no perfect arguments.

Acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s argument

This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, why lend credence to the other position?

One reason is that the opposing argument almost certainly has value – something you can learn from and use to strengthen your own argument. This may seem hard to believe since you are so invested in your argument, but remember: we are blind to our blindness

Furthermore, an opponent who feels his argument is ignored isn’t likely to engage with you at all. He may shout at you and you may shout back at him, but it is hard to persuade someone with whom you can’t even hold a conversation (177, bold added).

It isn’t likely that the person you are trying to convince is articulating a value-less position. There is probably some aspect of the truth in what they are saying, otherwise it wouldn’t gain any traction. If their argument was 100% worthless, no one would listen or care. If people are listening and caring, try to find out what is resonating and what has value that you can affirm before moving to your critique.

Keep the insults to yourself

You may name-call if you’d like, but it will not get you anywhere if you’re trying to be persuasive. Case in point, if you label someone a heretic (rightly or wrongly so), you’ve just made it very unlikely they will listen to your argument and will probably double-down on their position. Once you start using unflattering labels, you’ve decided implicitly that you’re not interested in persuasion. Here’s how Levitt and Dubner put it:

If you are hoping to damage opponents’ mental health, go ahead and tell them how inferior or dim-witter or nasty they are. But even if you are certifiably right on every point, you should not think for a minute that you will eve be able to persuade them. Name-calling will make you an enemy, not an ally, and if that is your objective, then persuasion is probably not what you were after in the first place (181).

Why you should tell stories

Lastly, we need more storytelling in our persuasive efforts. In reality, it is the most powerful form of persuasion, and Levitt and Dubner use the story of Nathan and King David to illustrate its power. A story, keep in mind, is not the same as an anecdote, which something that happened to you this one time. Stories, as Levitt and Dubner say, fill out the picture and use “data, statistical or otherwise, to portray a sense of magnitude” (182). Stories are powerful tools in teaching and capture attention better than a syllogism (however accurate and precise the latter may be).

In the end, whether we follow these steps will show whether we are interested in persuasion or proving our point. They are not mutually exclusive. You can have the latter without the former. But, you cannot have the former without the latter. If we believe our positions on important matters, theological or otherwise, are true, then we should hope to persuade as many people are we can. But that requires much more than presenting a sound argument. It may require more work, but in the end, it should be something we all aspire to in our conversations about things that count.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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