Have you ever found yourself in an ugly social media “discussion,” or felt cornered by an unrelenting contrarian, or typed things in an online debate that you later regretted (or deleted)? Have you ever felt like Proverbs 18:2 might be true of all of us simultaneously?
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.
Many of us would like to see public dialogue improve — more feedback and less blowback, more thoughtful critique and less nuclear rhetoric, more reason and less ranting. We’d like to engage our friends, family members, and even strangers — in person or online — in ways that are mutually sharpening, even when we agree to disagree.
I’m with you — I’d like to see our discourse grow more respectful, more teachable, and more substantive. I’d like to be proven wrong when I’m wrong, giving me the chance to learn. I’d like others to admit that I have a better argument when I really have one. I’d like to feel less threatened by someone coming at me with a solid argument or competing facts, and I’d like for others to act less threatened when I’m trying to challenge their view.
There are many practical ways we can improve these kinds of discussions, but sometimes before you start building, you have to clear away the rubble. Before we can learn, sometimes we have to unlearn. So instead of starting with winsomeness, I’d like to talk about warmongering — exposing some simple ways that we tend to undercut our own influence in a conversation.
With that in mind, here are four ways to persuade no one.
1. Insult them (blatant or subtle works equally well).
To maximize your unpersuasiveness, just insult people. Whether the insult is blatant or subtle, the effects are similar. I’ve experienced this approach a number of times over the past year, and it’s worked on me every time. If you want to dial it back a half-notch, label the other person’s view using epithets like “ridiculous,” thereby implying (but not stating) that they themselves are ridiculous for holding it.
One blog commenter this past year, whom I don’t know, called an article of mine “ridiculous” in his first sentence, and then went on to make his case. I wanted to engage the details of his argument, but it was difficult to get past his dismissive attitude, because his initial salvo told me he wasn’t interested in meaningful dialogue. Ridiculing someone and their view isn’t the best starting point for persuasion.
Another unpersuasive way to insult someone is to insult them with language they don’t find insulting. Calling someone “leftist” when they think you’re far out in right field isn’t going to advance the discussion. Persuasiveness increases when I present the best merits for my case, not the worst labels for yours.
2. Deliberately misunderstand them.
Twisting someone’s argument, misrepresenting their position, and building an ugly straw man is a strategy as ancient and twisted as the satanic serpent himself (Genesis 3:1-5). There are untold ways to do this, ranging from the savvy to the downright sassy. Either way, I believe it’s one of the main methods we use — consciously or unconsciously — to dodge the weight of another person’s view.
Building a straw effigy, clearly displaying your opponents’ malformed face, and burning it to the ground — this is a sure path to rile up your undiscerning and emotive friends, while persuading no one who’s thoughtful and influencing no one who disagrees. And you’ve just closed off your interlocutor to the best kind of conversation — the kind of conversation you could and should be having.
But the worst forms of this approach are the most subtle — when we pick on a word or phrase that isn’t coined quite right, or verbally spar about the microscopic nuances of a metaphor, or slyly attribute nefarious motives where we can prove none. These and many other covert methods may put us in the driver’s seat of a debate, but they often fail to lead us in the direction of objective truth and balanced wisdom.
3. Ask trapping questions.
The next time you’re debating a topic, online or in person, pay attention to the questions that get asked. In my experience, we usually ask rhetorical questions designed to expose, trap, and frame each other rather than sincere questions designed to explore, clarify, and understand each other’s views.
But when we only ask questions designed to trap, corner, and frame other people, we do all kinds of damage to the conversational opportunity before us. First, we distort their view, hindering our mutual ability to arrive at the truth. Second, we distract the discussion, leading ourselves onto rabbit trails of self-defense instead of careful paths of continued inquiry. And third, we tempt people to respond in kind. So you just twisted my argument in a clever way? I’m not gonna call; I’m gonna raise. This rhetorical version of evil-for-evil is a sure path to a war of attrition. We’re no longer interested in reality, truth, and wisdom (if we ever were in the first place). We’re now solely devoted to winning, and our questions are now enlisted as weapons.
4. Show no desire to learn.
The main thing I’ve learned through my time in academia is how much I don’t know. I tell my students on the first day of class that the professor is simply the lead learner. Jocko Willink, long-time NAVY SEAL and SEAL trainer, says that the most common reason why potential SEAL leaders fail to become effective leaders is because they’re unteachable. The key attribute of an effective combat leader, according to this hardened warrior? Humility.
When we sniff out an unteachable spirit in someone, there’s very little they can do to persuade us. Why? Because if they’re unwilling to learn in their conversation with us, it suggests that they might just be unwilling to learn in general, and if they’re unwilling to learn in general, why would we trust that their opinions and arguments are informed and thought-out? The less you think I’m interested in learning, the less likely you are to be persuaded by the view I’m advocating.
Yet no matter how little I might know about a given subject, I’m amazed at my own ability to marshall what little intellectual creativity I have and begin opining out of ignorance. On my better days, though, I am far more eager to position myself as a learner, remembering that knowing what I don’t know is one of the safest places to be. As Thucydides (or someone) said, “Ignorance is bold; knowledge is reserved.”
The moment you show a desire to learn, you become more persuasive to me. The moment I show a desire to learn, I become more persuasive to you. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, of course. But it’s certainly more true than its opposite. A teachable spirit is an attractive thing — as attractive as it is rare.
How then do we build a foundation for persuasiveness? Well, let’s just build mirror strategies out of the non-persuasive methods above. How should we treat people amidst ideological disagreements? These are just a starting point, but they really can make a difference:
- Communicate respect.
- Seek to understand.
- Ask sincere questions.
- Show a desire to learn.
In a divided nation, after a polarizing election, with an untrusted media and a tumultuous new leader, we can still take steps forward, growing together in knowledge and wisdom by sharing truth, challenging opinions, and sharpening our views. Even with disagreeing friends and family and social media strangers, we can grow to have better conversations. Let’s do it, together.