Your Way

Chapter 9

"Shut up and listen!"

The process that begins with an order to shut up and listen is sometimes called "laying down the law," and sometimes called persuasion. In fact, it is always the same thing—blowing off steam. If free will operates and example is the strongest influence, then "Shut up and listen!" will have a predictable effect: it will simultaneously shut off talk and thought. It announces an intention to vent. It is a modern version of "Thar she blows!"

"Shut up and listen!" says a father to a son who has announced his desire to join a cult. "Pay attention to what I say!" The father wants desperately to persuade, but does not even know how to begin. He really believes that when the situation is desperate, only force can work. He thinks persuasion is a luxury. But once he has given all the right orders, he has no idea how to enforce them. He's not all that sure it's moral to enforce them. So, in desperation, he wants to persuade.

His theory of persuasion is that you make somebody listen and you lay out the facts and they "just have to" acknowledge that you're right. His theory of persuasion makes it into intimidation. So he says "Shut up and listen!" and then he lays out the facts with all the eloquence and force he can muster. His son's free will is to him simply an obstacle to be overcome; he'd like to get rid of it. His son's power to choose is to him only the power to choose badly. "These are the facts about cults," he declares, "and so you have no choice but to stay away." If his son then demonstrates his power to choose by joining the cult, the father says, "See? Persuasion doesn't work. Force is the only thing that works."

That father cannot make persuasion work because he regards it as an antagonist of free will. He puts himself in the position of fighting freedom, fighting individual choice, fighting self-determination—because he is scared stiff of free will, which he sees as the ability to be wrong. This is the fear—mounting sometimes to terror—that causes some to declare that reason is not an influence and only force works.

The irony is that fearful folk who can't make persuasion work think that cults do make persuasion work. The cult is supposed to persuade magically. It is said to have a method of mind control. It has the power of evil, which gives it sway over the minds of others. It gets people to join even when they don't want to.

What the cult does have is one really good trick: it pretends to take the victim's free will seriously. While all the supposedly benign influences around the victim are either denying or ignoring free will, the cult recognizes it, affirms it, and celebrates its value by asking for it as a gift.

"I believed them," says the ex-cultist, "because they were the only ones who said I had the power of choosing. Everybody else just told me what to do; they said I had the power to make my own choice."

Actual persuasion, in this example, would start with the father asking, "What is your reasoning?" Instead of talking insistently, the father would listen insistently. His most effective speech would be: "Can you explain that further?" After all, what he wants so desperately to do is not to demonstrate his own grasp of reality, but to improve his son's grasp of reality. The thing he regards as an obstacle, free will, is his best hope. "Think about it!" he implores, with no idea of how to bring that about. "Be reasonable!" he orders, with no idea of how that might differ from obedience.

Young people join cults when they lack a method of handling reality, and think a method can be stepped into like new shoes. Why not? Their parents order them to don the coat of conformity, the cap of education, and the cloak of respectability. It occurs to them that one way to declare the power to choose is to make a really wild choice. If their power to choose had always been as carefully nurtured as their teeth, such a strategy would not interest them.

Fortunately, it is never too late. The idea of choice is powerfully persuasive because it connects with everyone's inner experience. You feel directly your freedom to think or not, so you experience choice as a natural good. That's why shopping is so popular. Shopping consists of making choices. People who claim that choice is terrifying forget the universal joy of shopping. Perhaps those who say they don't like choice are referring not to the action but to the consequences. The attraction of group conformity could be the promise of protection from the results of poor choice. People might submit not because they dislike to choose, but because they don't feel good at it.

In that case, an obvious method of persuasion would be: provide methods of choice. Offer help to the mind that chooses so that it can choose more skillfully. Your suggestions would not automatically be adopted, but they would be considered. If you want influence rather than control, it is consideration that you want.

Persuasion is about choice. It seeks to influence choice. The fundamental message of persuasion in all its forms is the same: you choose. Some try to make it say, "You have to choose." By thus setting an example of issuing orders, they negate the message. Learning the skill of persuasion is learning how to say, "You get to choose." The most direct and unambiguous way to convey that message is, "What is your choice?"

The reason so many people fail at persuasion is that they ignore the first rule and foundation of persuasion. That rule is contained in one word—ask.

People who try asking as a means of persuasion are often startled by the effectiveness of so simple a thing. They are demonstrating that persuasion is not an attack on some fortified intellectual citadel, but a cooperative process of adjusting thoughts toward a common goal.

Persuasion starts when there is a common goal to be reached, and a choice of method to be made. To show this, think of a contrary case. Persuade me that my goal is wrong and your goal is right. You want to use your ingenuity to prompt me to reason about my goal. You begin by asking me why I chose that goal. "Because it makes me happy." You ask how it does that. That is, you ask how it works for a more fundamental goal that we have in common: happiness. Since we are both determined not to compromise on happiness, we have reached a basis for negotiation on methods. Your hope is that as I explain my reasoning, I will notice flaws in it.

When flaws appear, then you can suggest your way to correct the flaws. Your effort will not be to control me, but to assist me. My reason will influence me to do things your way. I will be influenced not by thinking about what you want, but about what I want.

One of the ironies of the common notion of persuasion is that while it is supposedly directed outward, it is focused inward. When I set out to persuade you, I focus on my thoughts, my desires, my methods, my benefit—and as an afterthought, look outward to you. I seem to forget who it is that I want to influence. If I am trying to benefit at your expense, then I am withdrawing from social cooperation; I am turning to crime. If my attempt at influence is aimed at mutual benefit, then my best methods will be found by focusing on mutual benefit.

Talking people into things pretends to be persuasion, but usually consists of manipulation. It assumes that free will is something to be "handled." It forgets whose choice governs. Honey-tongued sweet talkers count on the good will of their listeners. They get indulged, and think they are magically prevailing. Their desire is not to influence, but to prevail. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes not. It's a gamble. Real persuasion is not a gamble.

Talking people out of things pretends to be persuasion, but usually consists of intimidation. I call your choice a threat, and try to make you feel foolish without making you angry. I aim for the idea that you lack the mental skill to choose wisely. Instead of providing methods to increase your skill, I try to make the decision for you. If you are nice enough to conceal your annoyance, I feel pleased with my persuasive skill.

The effective way to think about talking people out of things is to remember whose reason does the persuading. As it is your wit that persuades you rather than mine, so it is your talking that persuades you rather than mine. My best method of influencing you is to let you explain. That's when you will be paying closest attention to the wisdom of your words. That's when you are most likely to notice something wrong with them.

Influence is part of social cooperation. It deserves to be taken seriously. Fast-talking is not a serious adult method, but an extension of childhood dodges for getting indulged. The adult method is the effective method: reason. It does not treat volition as something to be finessed, but as part of human nature to be cherished. It does not interfere with choice; it facilitates choice. It does not look for weakness, but for strength.

Fast-talking is often thought of as a method for changing minds. When it fails, the talker declares that minds cannot be changed, and therefore reason won't work. In order to validate persuasion as influence by means of reason, we need to show that it can actually change minds. We need to show that it does so reliably and predictably.

Fortunately, that is easy to do.

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