My friends who have kids sometimes ask if the lessons I teach in my Persuasion classes also apply to little tykes. Can we apply classic rules of rhetoric to convince kids to do (or not do) things? Can we apply Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric to five-year-olds? Truth be told, I haven’t studied it in detail. But, as a father, and now grandfather, I do have some thoughts. I might even claim to have good ethos (in the Ciceronian sense). Here are some thoughts:
Nobody likes to be talked down to — as a speaker or writer, you should never imply that you are smarter than your audience. If you want to degrade an opponent’s ethos, tell the audience that the opponent thinks he’s better than they are. (This technique is known as attributed belittlement). The same concept applies to kids — only it’s more literal. You’re taller than they are. Get down to their level. Speak to them face to face. They don’t like to be talked down to.
Pathos trumps logos — we know that adults make decisions more based on emotion than on logic. Doubly true for kids. Start by recognizing, and validating, their emotions.
Concession-and-shift — the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. If a kid is throwing a tantrum, start by conceding that she’s right. I call it the “ain’t it awful” maneuver. First you get down to their level and say something like, “I just hate it when my ice cream falls in the sand box and I don’t get to eat it. Ain’t it awful?” You may need to repeat it several times. Pretty soon, they’ll realize that you’re agreeing with them. Then (and only then) you can start talking about next steps.
Decorum is the art of meeting expectations – what does your kid expect from you? If you don’t fulfill these expectations, you create cognitive dissonance. Your kid’s not sure he can trust what you’re saying. You can talk about anything but, first, you have to act like your kid expects you to act. You can change your kid’s expectations, but it takes time. Don’t try it in the middle of a meltdown.
Social proof is incredibly important — how do you get a kid to eat broccoli? Not by logic. Not by lying — “You’ll grow up big and strong”. Put him with other kids who like broccoli. When another kid says, “Can I have your broccoli?”, your kid will say, “No, that’s mine!” By the way, as an adult, your value as social proof to a kid is approximately zero.
Speak to their commonplaces — a commonplace is simply a shared belief. Conservative commonplaces tend to revolve around liberty. Liberal commonplaces tend to revolve around justice. Kids’ commonplaces tend to revolve around … well, you know your kid. What does she believe? Speak to that, not to what you believe. As Will Rogers said, “When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes. Not with what you like.”
I find that I often disagree with people. It’s not that I’m a bad person or that I have evil intentions. I just have a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic way of looking at the world that doesn’t always fit with other people’s views. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being out of step with the world. There are, however, good reasons to consider how to deal with it.
When I was younger and snarkier, I dealt with it by being competitive. I focused on winning. I’m pretty good with words and I could often come up with a snappy comeback or putdown. I could be sarcastic and snide. I could put the other person in his place. If I left the other person speechless, so much the better. That just proved that I had won the encounter. I felt superior.
Now that I’m a bit older, I realize that it’s more important to win over than to win. When I sarcastically put someone down, I doubt that I won many hearts and minds. Instead of winning people over, I pushed them away. Humiliating another person may feel good but it doesn’t do good.
I’ve learned that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. You start by finding some point of agreement with the other person’s position. It may be small or large, but it allows you to start by validating what the other person has said. You say – metaphorically or literally – “Yes, I’ve heard you. I understand your position.” The other person feels affirmed and recognized.
Then you change the frame, shift the focus, or alter the timeline. Here are some general-purpose ways to do just that:
Alter the timeline – “I agree that your suggestion would be helpful in the short run. But I worry that the long-term effects would be very detrimental. Here’s why…” (Of course, you can flip long-term and short-term if that suits your argument).
Agree conceptually then shift to the literal or practical aspects of the issue – “I think you’re right. A successful businessman should make a good president. I would just feel better if we had an example of that actually happening.”
Agree with your interlocutor’s frame of reference and then change the frame. Often, you’ll want to broaden the frame, like this: “I certainly agree that this would help first graders. But I’m concerned about all primary school students. How can we determine if this will help all students, not just beginners?” On other occasions, you may want to narrow the frame, like this: “I agree that this tax change will be good for most companies in our industry. But our company is an exception because of the way we account for our overseas profits.”
The general technique is known as concession-and-shift. It’s been in use at least since the days of Aristotle and his rhetorical colleagues. The idea is simple: start on a positive note rather than a negative note. Agree before disagreeing. If your interlocutor senses that you’re agreeable and reasonable, she’ll be much more likely to listen to your side of the argument. That’s exactly what you want.