Every day at my local coffee shop a group of retirees gather early in the morning to discuss daily events, armed with their copy of the Seattle Times or Wall Street Journal. I’ve listened in on their political clashes and have a good sense as to their ideological leanings based on my momentary interloping as I’ve waited on my daily hit of caffeine.
A few weeks ago, the debate got a bit testy. One of the more vocal of the group took main stage, quieting his antagonist by holding up his hand in the “shoosh” position, and bellowing “Stop with the politics. I deal in facts.” He then proudly unleashed three to four “gotchas” to end the discussion. I guess they were facts. But they were items selectively chosen to validate his pre-disposed position on the topic, a position I anticipated before he uttered a single word based on what I’d heard from him in the past. Fancying myself as a political junky of sorts, I was tempted to counter his “facts” with “facts” of my own that surely would demand a different outcome.
The point? Ideology – political, social, economic – divides us today, perhaps more than any time in the past. And just like a lawyer who assembles her argument by stitching together the most compelling facts and factors that favor her client, pundits – both of the professional and arm-chair variety – on virtually any topic too often offer up data points primarily or solely as a means of validating their biases. In essence, they present opinion masquerading as facts.
So, if your advocacy goal is to secure nods of approval or Facebook endorsements from the like-minded, while alienating all the rest, that’s a winning strategy. But if you seek to persuade and influence across a broad spectrum of ideologies and opinions in a business, political or social setting, you have to do more than simply bolt some facts to your editorial pitch. The key? Make it nearly impossible for them to disagree with you.
Here are three ways for doing so:
Ground Your Audience on an Inclusive and Widely-Appealing Problem Statement.
Consider Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. He didn’t speak solely to one race, religion or creed. He implored all religions, ethnicities, and races to care about the civil rights struggle, and to contribute to a better world for all. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal in such lofty matters in our personal or professional lives. But the approach by compelling advocates—on all subjects large and small—is nonetheless the same. To command an audience, you must start by answering their question, why should I care? It’s where it all begins, and if done poorly, is destined to end.
The first and most important step in influencing others is to include them; and it just may be the easiest.
Be Objective. Be Principled. No Hyperbole.
In almost all jobs, there are performance reviews. Some managers do it well, some not so much. Here are examples of it being done poorly. The manager speaks in generalities: “You are not strategic.” They exaggerate: “You never hit your numbers.” Or they lack proportionality or perspective: “You were late to a meeting” without any acknowledgment of extreme time pressures of a project (he assigned you) that may have led to it.
Open ended, unspecific and overstated or over-reaching comments invite dissent. How to avoid it? Keep your arguments tightly structured around facts that are objective and principled. The more we veer into opinion or facts wrapped in opinion with others, the more surface area we create for them to do the same in response.
For example, in a transaction whereby you are looking to sell patents to another company, the central question will be about valuation. How much the patents are worth. You might set your price by comparing your patents to an unrelated batch you sold to another company five years prior. You can also argue how your company leads the industry in R&D spending, and therefore the buyer should simply accept a top dollar valuation based on your heritage for cutting edge innovation. Neither approach is particularly compelling and exposes you to protracted disagreement. An alternate path would be to map out from the beginning a methodology for valuation – accepted across the industry – that both sides can align on. From there you can direct your mutual energy on the particulars of the deal.
Be Constructive. Be Introspective. Break the Impasse.
A typical Sunday morning news program will pit two people, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, against each other on a given issue. A kind of Hunger Games between talking heads. When I watch them, I immediately start assessing whom I believe to be the more persuasive speaker. The filters I use include: How objective are they? How fair or introspective? And do they overreach or exaggerate?
Among the key filters: Are they constructive? For me, the worst advocates are those who unapologetically pound out their talking points. Hardly, if ever, do they acknowledge points well made by the other side, nor do they consider or accept that reasonable people might disagree with their viewpoint. Even more so, they resist movement toward common ground or providing a vision for dislodging the impasse represented by competing opinions. They are a babbling battering ram content to bang heads until the other side gives in or up.
The best advocates are not always right. Importantly, it is not even their objective to always be right. It is to persuade others. Likewise, the best dealmakers are only nominally if at all concerned about winning the debate or proving their points. They measure their success by whether they get good deals done. That requires that they not allow themselves or the discussion to get stuck, or that they have a plan to unstick it if it does.
Use This Test to Ensure You’ve Made It Difficult for Others to Disagree with You
Before sending an important e-mail or polishing content for a key presentation, inspect it, searching for distracting subjectivity and gray areas that will invite conflict. If you find it, eliminate it. Watch for adjectives, superlatives, or hyperboles. Also, rid your work of unnecessary emotional outbursts or personal shots that stagnate the conversation around a problem, rather than work to solve it. Think of the most objective, fairest-minded, and principled person you know, and ask yourself, would they have reason to object to anything you’ve said? If the answer is yes, get back to work.
Persuasion only happens when you have accessed the attention, interest, and beliefs of others. Avoid complicating what already stands out as a formidable task by eliminating that with which one can easily disagree.