In persuasive presentations, we often appeal to commonplaces — opinions, attitudes, or perceptions that are widely held by a particular group. Like common sense, these attitudes are (supposedly) common to all members of a group. As persuaders, we can speak to a common point of view. We’re on common ground and we can move forward together.
The problem, of course, is that commonplaces aren’t so common. Indeed, many commonplaces have equal and opposite commonplaces to counterbalance them. One commonplace advises us to look before we leap. Another reminds us that he who hesitates is lost. On the one hand, we root for the underdog. On the other hand, we admire the self-made man – who is anything but an underdog.
It seems that we can find a commonplace to suit almost any argument. Want to lower taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (The government is inefficient. You earned it. You keep it. etc.) Want to raise taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (We’re all in this together. We need to help each other. etc.) And “good” commonplaces can be twisted to support “bad” causes. As Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”
In my persuasion class, I ask students to write papers in which they argue a point. By and large, my students are quite adept at deploying commonplaces to support their arguments. I notice that they often deploy commonplaces that they believe in. To be persuasive, however, we need to consider the commonplaces that the audience believes in. I shouldn’t assume that you think like me. Rather, I should seek to understand what you think and use that as a starting point for building my argument.
The concept of using the audience’s commonplaces is as old as Greek rhetoric. It got a boost last year when the sociologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg published their research on argumentation and moral values. Their basic finding: we are more persuasive when we frame arguments for a political position around “the target audience’s moral values.”
Feinberg and Willer point out that liberals and conservatives have different moral values (or commonplaces in our terminology). They write “…liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with … group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”
They then tested how to persuade conservatives to take a liberal position or vice-versa. For instance, how would you persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage? They found that conservatives are more likely to agree with an argument based on patriotism than one based on equality and fairness. Conservatives tended to agree with an argument that, ““same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.” They were less likely to agree with an argument couched in terms of fairness and equality.
Aristotle taught us that the best person to judge the quality of food is the one who eats it, not the one who prepares it. The same is true for arguments. You can’t judge how effective your argument is. Only the audience can. The moral of the story? Get over yourself. Learn what the audience is thinking.
How easy is it for an us-versus-them situation to arise? How often do we define our group as different from – and therefore better than – another group? The short answers: It’s surprisingly easy and it happens all the time.
In my professional life, I often saw us-versus-them attitudes arise between headquarters and the field. Staffers at head-quarters thought they were in a good position to direct field activities. People in the field thought the folks at headquarters just didn’t have a clue about the real world.
Headquarters and the field are typically separated by many factors, including geography, planning horizons, rank, age, academic experience, and tenure. Each side has plenty of reasons to feel different from – and superior to – the other side. But how many reasons does it take to generate us-versus-them attitudes?
In the early 1970s, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel tried to work out the minimum requirements for one group to discriminate against another group. It turns out that it doesn’t take much. People who are separated into groups based on their shirt color develop us-versus-them attitudes. People who are separated based on the flip of a coin do the same. Tajfel’s minimal group paradigm is quite simple: The minimum requirement to create us-versus-them attitudes is the existence of two groups.
Us-versus-them attitudes are completely natural. They arise without provocation. There’s no conspiracy. All we need is two groups. I sometimes hear managers say, “Let’s not develop us-versus-them attitudes here.” But that’s completely unnatural. Something about our human nature requires us to develop such attitudes when two groups exist. It can’t not happen.
We can’t avoid us-versus-them attitudes but we can dissolve them. We can’t stop them from starting but we can stop them once they have started.
The pioneering research on this was the Robbers Cave Experiment conducted in 1954. Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif, professors at the University of Oklahoma, selected two dozen 12-year-old boys from suburban Oklahoma City and sent them off to summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park. The boys were quite similar in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. None of the boys knew each other at the beginning of the experiment.
The boys were randomly divided into two groups and housed in different areas of the campground. Initially, the groups didn’t know of each other’s existence. They discovered each other only when they began to compete for camp resources, like playing fields or dining halls. Once they discovered each other, they quickly named their groups: Rattlers and Eagles.
So far, the boys’ behavior was entirely predictable. The research question was: How do you change such behavior to reduce us-versus-them attitudes?
The researchers first measured the impact of mere contact. The researchers thought that by getting the boys to mingle – in dining halls or on camp buses, for example – they could overcome negative attitudes and build relationships. The finding: mere contact did not change attitudes for the better. Indeed, when contact was coupled with competition for resources, it increased friction rather than reducing it.
The researchers then moved on to superordinate goals. The two groups had to cooperate to achieve a goal that neither group could achieve on its own. For example, the researchers arranged for the camp bus to “break down”. They also arranged for the water supply to go dry. Rattlers and Eagles had to work together to fix the problems. The finding: cooperation on a larger goal reduced friction and the two groups began to integrate. Rattlers and Eagles actually started to like each other.
The research that the Sherifs started has now grown into a domain known as realistic conflict theory or RCT. The theory suggests that groups will develop resentful attitudes towards other groups, especially when they compete for resources in a zero-sum situation. According to Wikipedia, RCT suggests that “…positive relations can only be restored if superordinate goals are in place.”
The moral of the story is simple: you can’t prevent us-versus-them attitudes but you can fix them. Just find a problem that requires cooperation and collaboration.
I subscribe to Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) Management Tip of the Day and, every business day, I get a one-paragraph idea for improving my communication and management skills. It’s an intriguing way to get exposed to a wide-range of ideas in short period of time. (Click here to subscribe).
A recent tip summarized how to “Avoid Fighting With Your Spouse When You Get Home From Work.” The article notes “It’s unrealistic and unhelpful for couples to expect that they’ll automatically be in sync when they arrive home; different needs, different recovery times, and different experiences…make it more likely that you’ll be out of sync.”
It’s a good point and it reminds me of a story from a young colleague of mine named Molly. Molly and her husband have been married for just a few years and they both work outside the home. They’re settling in to their careers and their jobs are demanding. They noticed that, when they arrive home, their emotional states are often “out of sync.”
Sometimes Molly would arrive home after a tough day and notice something askew in the house. She might stew on it a bit and, when her husband arrived home, she would “pounce” on him. Sometimes, it’s the other way round – husband arrives home first, stews on something, and pounces on an unsuspecting Molly when she arrives. I suspect that all married couples have had similar experiences.
What makes Molly and her husband different is that they realized that neither one of them was at fault. It wasn’t his or her fault. Rather, it was a question of timing and the degree to which they were in or out of sync emotionally.
So they decided to … buy a porcelain elephant. They also agreed to a timing-and-discussion protocol. The porcelain elephant normally sits on a bookshelf. However, if either Molly or her husband is stewing about something, he or she moves the elephant to a coffee table in the living room. It’s a quiet signal that “We need to talk.”
Let’s replay the same scenario. Molly arrives home in a bad mood, notices something askew in the house, stews about it, and … moves the elephant to the coffee table. Her husband arrives home and notices the elephant. He can immediately ask her what’s wrong or – if he’s really not in the right mood – he can ignore it for up to 12 hours. They’ve agreed that, when the elephant comes out, they’ll have a meaningful conversation to resolve the issue, but not necessarily upon walking in the door.
I think it’s a genius move and a very mature strategy for a young couple. It ensures that the conversation happens while leaving some flexibility for both parties to get in sync emotionally. As the HBR article notes, don’t have the conversation “…right when you get home. Set aside some time to talk when you’re both feeling more relaxed.” Molly and her husband have figured out exactly how to do that.
Let’s say that you run a non-profit organization that wants to build stronger relationships in the community. You want to reach out to existing clients and to people that you haven’t served before. You want to build long-term relationships and a strong base of support.
You’ll probably want to start by enriching and expanding your communication programs. You might invest more in community outreach and in public service announcements. You could launch a newsletter. Volunteering to speak at various events and civic clubs is also a good idea.
Many communication programs, however, are rather passive. People in the community can see what you’re doing but they’re not interacting with you. They’re observers rather than participants.
It’s good to be seen. To build a strong web of relationships, however, you need to do more. You need to entice people to interact with your message and your program. Interaction leads to involvement. Involvement leads to commitment. Commitment leads to lifelong passion and support.
Building passionate support takes time and persistence. You can stimulate temporary interest with a catchy campaign. But deep, rich, long-term support requires a different level of commitment. You should start long before you need the community to passionately support you.
Think of a community engagement campaign as a wedge. Too often, we aim at the wrong end of the wedge – the thick end. We want to “move the needle”, “shake things up”, and “put our organization on the map.” We hope that a moving message and a clever campaign will quickly create the support we need.
Too often, such campaigns fail because we forget about the difference between observers and participants. Even a brilliant campaign with a well-crafted message allows our clients and potential clients to remain observers. People may remember a catchy slogan, but they haven’t interacted in any meaningful way. Like a pop song, a catchy slogan is quickly replaced by a brighter, fresher campaign.
The trick to building commitment is to start at the thin end of the wedge. Start by asking for small commitments, not big ones. Create activities that entice people to interact, not merely observe. Build stepwise programs that start small and gradually grow larger. Take your time.
Here are two ways to start small. They’re not clever or slick. In fact, they’re rather mundane. But they both ask community members to interact with your program, not simply observe it.
1) Telephone survey – your organization probably impacts the community in several ways. You construct a phone survey that itemizes your impacts and asks for feedback. The survey is simplicity itself: “Our organization impacts the community in three ways: A, B, and C. Which one of these is most important to you and your family?” You’re not asking for money or time; you’re simply asking for an opinion. Respondents hear your message and give an opinion. They’re no longer observers. They’re now participants. They’ve taken the critical first step. They’re on the wedge.
2) 25 words or less – your next step might be to sponsor a write-in contest with an interesting prize. Ask community members to write an essay of 25 words or less (or maybe 50 or 100) with the topic, “Why NPO X is important to me”. The best essay wins the prize. You’ll get some great ideas. More importantly, you’ll entice hundreds of people to nudge themselves into deeper and broader support. They’re moving up the wedge.
(By the way, don’t make the prize for the essay contest too big. You want participants to think, “I’m writing this essay because it’s important to me” rather than, “I’m writing this essay because of the prize.”)
What next? I’ll have some thoughts on that in future articles. In the meantime, start getting your clients to participate rather than observe.
The United Kingdom is deeply embroiled in the Brexit debate. It’s the classic question: should we stay or should we go? Polls suggest that the electorate is almost evenly split. What can this teach us about persuasion?
Let’s take an example from a man with an opinion. Michael Sharp is a fisherman from the lovely little port of Brixham on the south coast of England who favors leaving the EU. The New York Times quotes him as saying,
“I definitely want out. … All those wars we’ve had with France, Germany — all the rest of them since God knows when, since Jesus was a lad — we’re never going to get on with them, are we?”
Now imagine that you support the opposite side – you think the UK should stay in the EU. How might you persuade Mr. Sharp to agree with you? Here are four different rhetorical approaches you might try:
A) “What a silly thing to say. We’re friends with France and Germany now. You’re 70 years out of date.”
B) “What a parochial and small-minded attitude you have. You should broaden your horizons.”
C) “All the experts say we should stay in. The top bankers and managers say it will wreck the economy to leave.”
D) “I know what you’re saying. But I’ll tell you what I’m worried about. The Russians. If we’re squabbling with the French and Germans, the Russians will divide and conquer. That’s what they’re good at. It’ll be worse for all of us.”
Which alternative is best? As always, it depends on what you want to accomplish. Let’s look at the choices.
Alternatives A & B – in both cases, you strongly suggest to Mr. Sharp that he’s wrong, stubborn, and not very smart. If your goal is to feel superior to Mr. Sharp, this is a good strategy. On the other hand, if wish to persuade Mr. Sharp to your way of thinking, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.
Alternative C – an appeal to authority can work in some situations. But not here. Many Brexit supporters think the authorities – better known as the elites – can’t be trusted. “They don’t care about us. They’ve sold us out. If they say we should stay, all the more reason to leave.” In this case, quoting the elites is self-defeating. (It’s probably a poor tactic in arguing with a Donald Trump supporter as well).
Alternative D – this is a rhetorical technique known as concession-and-shift. You begin by agreeing with the other person. In this case, you concede that Mr. Sharp is right. This makes you seem open-minded and reasonable (even if you’re not). Then you shift to new ground and bring in a different perspective. Since you’re open-minded, Mr. Sharp is more likely to be open-minded in return. He’s more likely to listen to your thoughts and understand your position. That’s the first step in persuading him to your point of view.
Concession-and-shift is a form of rhetorical jujitsu. You don’t push back. You don’t deny the other person’s position. You don’t try to humiliate the other side. Rather, you accept their position and move on. In its simplest form, you say, “You have a good point. But have you considered …”
Concession-and-shift can work in many different situations. It’s a useful tool to master and remember. And it helps us achieve the ultimate goal of rhetoric – to argue without anger.