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Context Effects: PayPal and Brexit

Whom do you trust?

Whom do you trust?

PayPal was recently skewered on social media because it sponsored a panel discussion on gender equality and inclusion in the workplace. The problem was that the panel consisted solely of men. Women quickly tore into the company on Twitter and Tumblr for being tone deaf and sexist.

In fairness to PayPal, the panel discussion was supposed to have been titled: “Gender Equality and Inclusion In the Workplace: A Conversation With Our Male Allies”. Somehow, the organizers omitted the last part of the title from the official program.

I suspect that PayPal’s panel was a well-intentioned effort to bridge the gender gap. But the organizers made a simple mistake – they focused on strategy and forgot about context.

In persuasion, we typically start by developing the message strategy. What is the key message that we need to communicate? How can we best encapsulate that message in a memorable campaign?

While message strategy is certainly critical, it’s not the only concern. We also need to consider the context the message is delivered in. It’s a fairly simple question: does the context create an opportunity to deliver our message effectively? Sometimes, contextual factors facilitate the message delivery. At other times, the context constrains our ability to communicate clearly. Creating an all-male panel on gender equality does not provide a favorable context.

From a timing perspective, Greek rhetoricians called this kairos. Translated literally, it means the “supreme moment”. In our context, kairos means finding the opportune moment to deliver a persuasive message. As Jay Heinrichs points out, it’s analogous to a teachable moment. A teacher finds the right moment to teach a memorable lesson. Similarly, a persuader finds the right moment to deliver a persuasive message.

Kairos refers to timing and timeliness. But we need to consider other contextual factors as well. Who delivers the message? In what forum? What is the audience ready to receive? Whom does the audience trust? What media and channel provide the best opportunity to deliver the message successfully?

In this context, I wonder about the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom. One side – the Remain campaign — argues that Britain will be stronger by staying in Europe. The other side – the Leave campaign — argues that leaving will make Britain great again. Both sides have worked out their message strategies.

Polls suggest that the two sides are very evenly divided. Both sides have strong messages. Neither has a clear advantage. Given this, which side will be more persuasive? In my humble opinion, it will be the side that makes best use of contextual factors. In this regard, the Leave campaign has a clear advantage.

While the Remain campaign has a solid message, it’s misreading the context. More specifically, it’s using the wrong messengers (again, in my humble opinion).

Here’s the context. Voters who support the Leave campaign perceive that their economic situation has deteriorated since Britain joined the European Union. They also perceive that joining the Union was a project conceived and championed by the “elite”. It’s easy to conclude that the elite classes have “sold us out”.

And who is speaking for the Remain campaign? By and large, it’s the elite. We hear from top managers, bankers, executives, rich people, and assorted toffs. We even hear from the head of the IMF, who happens to be French. Now, we even hear from the president of the United Sates.

Who are these people? They’re the elites – exactly the people whom the Leavers don’t trust. The easy response from the Leave campaign: “Well, you remember what happened the last time we trusted them.”

If the Remain campaign continues to pursue an elite strategy, I suspect the Leave campaign will win – and by a wide margin. What’s the lesson in all this? Whether you’re PayPal or the British Prime Minister, consider the context.

Rhetorical Jujitsu

Lovely place Brixham

Lovely place Brixham

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.

Donald, Bernie, and Belittlement

Singing from the same hymnal.

Singing from the same hymnal.

What do Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common?

In addition to being old, white, and angry, they both use an ancient rhetorical technique known as attributed belittlement. The technique has survived at least since the days of Aristotle. It survives because it’s simple and effective.

Attributed belittlement works because nobody likes to be humiliated. If I tell you that Joe thinks you’re a low-life, no-account, I’ll probably get a rise out of you. What I say about Joe may not be true, but that’s not the point. I want you to feel humiliated. To accomplish that, I’ve attributed to Joe belittling thoughts about you. I want to make you so angry that you don’t even think about whether I’m telling the truth. I want to manipulate you into focusing your anger on Joe. I want to short-circuit your critical thinking apparatus.

The technique works even better with groups than with individuals like Joe. You can get to know an individual. Perhaps you already know Joe and you like him. That casts doubt on my veracity. But with a group – nameless, faceless bureaucrats, for instance – it’s easy to imagine the worst. They hate us. They look down on us. They take advantage of us. Belittlement works best when we can profile an entire group of people. It’s not logical but it’s effective.

So, let’s imagine the following quote:

They look down on you. They think they’re superior to you. They think you’re here to serve them. They think they can push you around. They’ve taken your jobs and your money and now they just want to rub your nose in it.

Would this quote come from Donald or Bernie? Well, … it depends on who “they” are. If we’re talking about immigrants and religious minorities, it seems like something the Donald would say. If, on the other hand, we’re talking about billionaires and fat cats, it’s more likely something that Bernie would say.

Note the rhetorical device. While talking to you, the speaker attributes horrible thoughts to other people. These are people who are easy to caricature. They’re also easy to profile: after all, they all think alike, don’t they? They’re also not here to defend themselves. Whether you’re Donald or Bernie, it’s an easy way to score cheap points.

By the way, I’m not an innocent bystander here. I sold software for mid-sized companies and often competed against some very big fish. I told prospective customers that, “The big software companies don’t want your business. You don’t generate enough revenue. They won’t give their best service. You’re just a little fish in a big pond.” It didn’t work every time. But when it did, it worked very well.

The good thing about attributed belittlement is that it’s easy to spot. Someone is talking to you about another group or company or person who is not physically present. The speaker attributes belittling thoughts to the third party. It’s a good time to say, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re using attributed belittlement to make me angry. You must think I’m stupid.”

The Dreaded iHunch

Now look at your phone.

Now look at your phone.

We know that smart phones are bad for your posture. And we know that posture has a strong influence on mood, attitude, and performance. So, could smart phones be undermining your mood and deflating your performance? Of course they could.

Let’s review what we know about two key ideas:

Smart phones and posture – we know that people tilt their heads forward to read their smart phones. The trendy term for this is iHunch. Anatomists more frequently refer to it as forward head posture in which the ear is “…forward of the shoulder rather than sitting directly over it.” As the authors at What’s Your Posture note, it’s like hanging a bowling ball around your neck and reduces lung capacity by as much as 30%. It’s also associated with “headaches, abnormal functions of the eyes and ears, and psychological and mental disorders.” Yikes!

Posture and performance – the concept of embodied cognition suggests that we think with our bodies as much as our minds. If we smile, our mood will improve. If we stand up straight, our confidence will improve. If we support an idea, we’ll stand up for it. If we want to help someone, we’ll bend over backwards for them. In very literal ways, our posture affects our mood and performance.

As Amy Cuddy pointed out in her popular TED talk, if we adopt a high-power pose for two minutes, our levels of testosterone increase and levels of cortisol decrease. The effect is to increase dominance and reduce stress. We’re more confident and our performance improves.

On the other hand, if we hold a low-power pose for two minutes, testosterone falls and cortisol rises. We’re more stressed and less confident. Our performance suffers.

What does a low-power pose look like? Well, … it looks a lot like the posture we adopt when we look at our smart phones. In a low-power pose, we make ourselves smaller. We draw ourselves in. We take up less space rather than more. In a smart phone posture we’re essentially doing all of those things at once.

As Cuddy pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times, “When we’re sad, we slouch. We also slouch when we feel scared or powerless. Studies have shown that people with clinical depression adopt a posture that eerily resembles the iHunch.” By slouching over our phones, we’re making ourselves sad, fearful, and depressed.

When we look at our smart phones, we absorb new information. That information could be positive or negative. The posture we use, however, increases our stress and reduces our confidence. That tends to undermine the positive news and accentuate the negative news. We stress ourselves through our postures as much as our news sources.

What to do? As my father (a good military man) frequently reminded me, “Stand up straight. Look sharp, be sharp”. As it turns out, Dad was right. Oh… and breathe deeply, hold your head up, and take up more space rather than less. You feel better already, don’t you?

Sending A Memo To Your Future Self

Memo to self...

Memo to self…

We know a lot about the future. We can’t predict it precisely but we can often see the general contours of what’s coming. With a little imagination, we can prepare for it. We just need a structure to hang our imagination on.

As an example, let’s take organizations that are undergoing rapid and/or stressful change. We know a lot about such organizations. We know, for instance, that:

  • Communication suffers – people are distracted and don’t listen well. Bain estimates that only 20% of the information communicated actually gets through. Attention spans get shorter than ever. Tip: don’t give long speeches.
  • Memory becomes less accurate – stress affects memory in odd ways. Even in normal times, different people remember the same event in different ways. It gets worse in stressed out organizations.
  • We hear mixed and contradictory messages – change doesn’t happen smoothly across the organization. Some departments move quickly; others move slowly. When we talk to different people, we’ll hear different messages. It’s hard to tell what’s really going on.
  • We jump to conclusions more urgently — as the Heath brothers point out, we jump to conclusions all the time. Stress makes us even more jumpy. We’re anxious to get a solution and don’t take the time to consider the evidence.
  • Trust withers – it’s hard to trust people when we remember things differently, hear different messages, and jump to different conclusions.

I could go on but you get the picture. We also know that organizational change happens in three phases. At least, that’s what the theorists tell us. Here are four different models of the change process (here, here, here, and here). They use different descriptors but all four describe three distinct phases of change. Note that the middle phase is a trough – that’s where the going gets tough.

The trick to preparing for the future is to start imagining it before we get to the trough. Change managers refer to the trough with words like frustration, depression, resistance, and chaos. It’s not a good time for imagining.

So we start the imagination process in Phase 1. We’re still cool, calm, and collected. We can think more or less clearly – especially if we’ve studied critical thinking. We can think about the future dispassionately and plan how we want to behave.

We sit down in groups and discuss the issues we can anticipate in Phases 2 and 3. We know, for instance, that we’re likely to hear contradictory messages. How do we want to behave when we do? What can we do now to outline “best behaviors” for the stress created by contradictory messages? What can we do to ensure that we actually implement the best behaviors? What else might happen in the trough? How do we want to behave when it happens? We talk, discuss, debate, imagine, and agree.

We then write down what we’ve agreed to. In effect, we’re writing a memo from our current selves to our future selves. From our cool, calm, dispassionate selves to our stressed and anxious future selves. We make clearheaded decisions in Phase 1. When we get to Phase 2, we can refer back to our own wisdom to help govern our actions

I call this process Structured Imagination™. What we know about the future gives us the structure. We use the structure to focus our imaginations. We imagine what will happen and how we’ll behave when it does. This prepares us for the hurly burly of change and also vaccinates us against many of the ill effects of the trough.

Structured Imagination is not a perfect process – the future may still throw us a curve every now and then. However, I’ve used the process with multiple clients and they say that they face the future with greater confidence and clarity. That’s pretty good. If you’d like me to do a Structured Imagination workshop with your organization, just drop me a line.

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