One of the biggest reasons it is difficult to convince someone of your argument is that, far too often, facts and rationality are irrelevant.
I participated for many years as a parliamentary debater in the American Parliamentary Debate Association. We won rounds based on our ability to establish multiple, strong arguments in favor of our case, then eliminating, one-by-one, the arguments of our opposition. It was a tit-for-tat battle. If my opponent failed to account for one of my arguments, I could triumphantly claim that he “dropped’ my point and win it by forfeit.
This is NOT how the real world works.
In 2010 I attended a climate change education workshop in Washington DC run by the National Academy of Sciences. The question was how climate change skepticism was so widespread despite the fact that 97-98% of actively publishing climate scientists agree with the conclusion that climate change is happening and that humans are primarily responsible. The parliamentary debater in me firmly believed that if only people were more educated to the facts, they would surely change their opinions.
And yet psychological research, including that from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, does not support this conclusion. In one study, cognitive scientists found that many of those most alarmed about climate change don’t even understand the science. A recent poll from Brookings has shown that while 78% of Democrats acknowledge global warming is happening, Republicans are split down the middle. Both examples illustrate a disconnect between facts and what people believe.
This occurs because humans develop, as a natural defense mechanism, a model for the world in which they live. Adherence to the model gives an individual his identity. That identity is often woven into his relationships with larger communities, like family, friends, church, or political party. To turn his back on a foundational tenant means to ostracize himself from a group, and admit to a personal fault.
The most effective way, therefore, to convince someone of your argument is to first understand their cultural commitments. People (political conservatives especially) tend to prefer the established order. Failure to understand their bedrock principles can lead to arguments that rub against the grain, creating backlash and ironically, an entrenchment of previously held beliefs. A compelling debater understands cultural commitments and plays to them.
Every approach will be different. If you want to convince a fisherman of climate change, take him to his favorite river and highlight the changes he’s already observed, like a shortening of the winter season. For the very religious, work through a church authority. For politicians, find a way that allows them to accept an argument that coexists with their principles, e.g. using a carbon price to address greenhouse gas emissions rather than a complicated collection of regulations, requirements and government agencies.
Instead of directly introducing the argument you want your listener to believe, take a three-step approach. First, ask him to name a quality about himself that he considers a strength. While this may seem silly, this helps him assume a position of strength. This mindset increases the likelihood that he will accept new ideas.
Second, instead of directly stating your point, begin by introducing uncontroversial facts. Try to avoid bringing incorrect conclusions, as doing so can reinforce them. If you must, though, be sure to first issue a big disclaimer. For example, you might say to a global warming skeptic, “You will often hear people report incorrectly, and I stress ‘incorrectly’, that global temperatures are decreasing. The way scientists know for sure is by taking temperature measurements all over the globe over a period of many years.”
Third, instead of explicitly saying the argument you want to convince him of, show him data that allows him to draw his own conclusion. You might say, “Here’s a plot of the average planetary temperature as measured by 5 different groups over the last 100 years. You can probably see why so many scientists have concluded what they have.”
Approaching the argument from this direction permits the listener to make up his own mind. He needn’t concede that he was wrong and you were right. Instead, given the freedom to make up his own mind, he takes control of the information as his own. Research has shown this three-step approach to be quite effective.
There are other tips one should follow:
- Make arguments personally meaningful and attempt to trigger empathy.
- People often use poor word choice. Use clever alliteration to aid retention of information, and then repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Tell good stories if you can.
- Never overwhelm with facts. Use three facts at most. Going overboard has been shown to be counterproductive.
- Never dispel an incorrect argument without replacing it with a correct one.