The Art of Persuasion
A CHILD has a hungry mind. He wants to know the reason for things. “What makes the sky blue?” “How did I get here?” “Where do the stars go during the day?” “What are you doing?” “Why this?” “Why that?” When he gets his answers, he is satisfied. No persuasion needed.
Later on he asks, “Why can’t I have more candy?”
“Because you’ll spoil your supper. Candy isn’t a balanced food. It’s bad for your teeth. Too much isn’t good for you.”
He gets his answers, all solid reasons. But this time he is not satisfied. Why not? Because now it is not a curious mind that is involved; rather, an emotional desire. He does not want answers. He wants candy. You may give reasons, but you probably do not persuade him by explaining that it is not good for him. How many five-year-olds care about what is good for them?
For that matter, many adults do not care what is good for them either. They know the hazards of smoking, for example. The evidence mounts daily, and examples of those who defy it are buried in cemeteries daily. Nevertheless, millions of otherwise intelligent persons ignore reason and continue this practice that is hazardous to their health. Why? Simply because they want to.
Can they be persuaded to stop? Can the child that wants more candy be persuaded to limit himself? To persuade others to change an opinion or a practice is not just a simple matter of giving them reasons to change. The art of persuasion involves much more.
First, it is important to know the reasons people have for clinging to wrong ideas. See beneath the surface. Are they uninformed, only partially informed, or misinformed? Oftentimes their position is based solely on emotion. If emotion is involved, reasoning alone will not persuade. Early in the conversation try to discover the real basis of their belief, and tailor your words accordingly. This is the Bible’s advice: “Study how best to talk with each person you meet.”—Col. 4:6, The New English Bible.
Logic a Basic Requirement
If your beliefs are based solely on emotion, you will have little to offer in their defense. Moreover, they will not be strongly anchored in your own mind. Your own thinking will be swayed willy-nilly by emotional appeals and rabble-rousing tactics. So know your subject well.
Many know just one side, their side. It is all they are interested in. They read the writers that agree with them. They listen to the speakers that confirm their convictions. They believe what they want to believe, and listen to nothing that might rock their mental boats. “In accord with their own desires,” the Christian apostle Paul said of such ones, “they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled; and they will turn their ears away from the truth.”—2 Tim. 4:3, 4.
But if you are to be persuasive, an important requirement is for you to know the facts. All of them, pro and con. If you know only the arguments for your case, you are vulnerable, even though you are convinced it is right. The opposition comes along and punches it full of holes! Then it is with you as the wise writer of Bible proverbs said: “He who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”—Prov. 18:17, Revised Standard Version.
But now, we presume, you have not committed this folly. You are ready. You have researched the question. You know your side. You also know the other side, and how to refute the arguments for it. You come to grips with your adversary. You open up with two of your best points. He is hard-hit, flushes, but strikes back with an argument. The words are hardly out of his mouth before you have smashed them down and unloaded two more strong points. He is getting angry. He is on the run. He cannot answer. He gets mad and starts to yell. You won!
No, you lost. You lost him. You were trying to win him over to your side, but you have alienated him and hardened his heart against you. In a situation like that, think of the wisdom packed into the brevity of the Bible proverb that says: “A man may be pleased with his own retort; how much better is a word in season!”—Prov. 15:23, NEB.
You had the right answers, but you served them to him in a way he could not stomach. They came as an attack, not graciously tasteful and seasoned with salt, not “with a mild temper and deep respect,” as the Christian apostle Peter counseled. As another Bible writer puts it: “He that is sweet in his lips adds persuasiveness.”—1 Pet. 3:15; Prov. 16:21.
Apply the Golden Rule?
“Always treat others as you would like them to treat you” is the advice the persuasive teacher Jesus gave. (Matt. 7:12, NEB) Do you like to be criticized, shown up as wrong, forced to change? Even when deep inside we know we are wrong, it is difficult to admit it when the one opposing us is blunt and dogmatic. We react defensively, justify ourselves, try to save face. But it is not so difficult if our opponent listens to us, understands our side, agrees where he can, and shows some flexibility in his own thinking.
What if he says to us: “I may be wrong on that point. However, I think these others I mentioned are true, but I could be mistaken. Why don’t we go over the facts once more and try to get the right answer? I’m sure you’re reasonable, and I hope I am. Now, we both agreed on this fact. How do you think it fits in with this other point?”
He continues with questions that draw us out. Now we do not feel challenged or under attack. We open up our minds, begin to think objectively, and weigh points we had previously overlooked or rejected. In the end we may even think we have discovered the new answer ourselves, or at least feel we shared in its discovery. Actually, the other fellow led us into it, tactfully, painlessly, all because he proved to be like the “wise one” mentioned in Proverbs 16:23: “The heart of the wise one causes his mouth to show insight, and to his lips it adds persuasiveness.”
We must treat others this way if we hope to convince them that their views are wrong. Our presentation should be guided by genuine neighbor love for the one we are persuading. Follow the advice of the three-thousand-year-old proverb that says: “An answer, when mild, turns away rage, but a word causing pain makes anger to come up.” (Prov. 15:1) By making it as painless as possible for him, you will persuade your neighbor to accept your view of matters.
Entrenched Emotional Barriers
Some persons, when arguing, deliberately blind themselves to facts unacceptable to them. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day did this. They knew quite well what the Bible prophecies had said would constitute the signs by which to identify the Messiah, but they refused to see that Jesus fulfilled all these signs. Jesus was emotionally unacceptable to them, because he did not offer them the political independence, power and glory they craved. So they closed their eyes to the facts and rejected him. But in doing so, as Jesus observed, the prophecy of Isaiah was having fulfillment, which says: “For the heart of this people has grown unreceptive, and with their ears they have heard without response, and they have shut their eyes; that they might never see with their eyes and hear with their ears and get the sense of it with their hearts.”—Matt. 13:14, 15.
When strong emotional barriers exist, you cannot persuade an individual to change his position until they are removed. What is the emotion in each instance that blocks persuasion? Is it pride, prejudice, self-interest, desire for group acceptance? Or does he reject truth because it is unpopular, or would curtail fleshly pleasures, or would bring obligations? To discern the cause, let him talk.
Illustrations are an important tool in persuasion. By dramatizing a point they make us see and feel. They stir us emotionally.
Some Noteworthy Examples
We emotionally resent someone who tells us we are wrong, and if we hold power over him he is treading on dangerous ground if he attempts to correct us. This was the position the prophet Nathan was in when he had to tell King David he had sinned in taking another man’s wife. So he used an illustration. A rich man had many sheep. A poor man had only one. But when the rich man needed a lamb to slaughter for a feast, he did not use one of his many, but took the poor man’s lamb.
King David’s emotions boiled! His “anger grew very hot against the man,” the account tells us, “so that he said to Nathan: ‘As Jehovah is living, the man doing this deserves to die!’” Nathan responded: “You yourself are the man!” Many women were available to the king, but he had taken Bath-sheba, the only one Uriah had. David, crushed, confessed: “I have sinned against Jehovah.” (2 Sam. 12:1-14) By an illustration Nathan roused David’s emotions and caused him to condemn himself!
In Santa Barbara, California, a woman, an environmentalist, raged against the Union Oil Company a few years back when an oil spill polluted the ocean, but when the city proposed an ordinance requiring pleasure boats to install chemical toilets, she and other boat owners protested vehemently: “What little we throw into the sea doesn’t matter!” Later she was walking on the sidewalk with a friend and saw a gum wrapper on the ground. She picked it up, bitterly denouncing litterbugs. “Oh, well,” her friend replied, “it’s so little it doesn’t matter.” After a stern rebuke for this lax attitude, the friend countered: “I was only quoting you on polluting the ocean with your sewage.” Her emotion against litterbugs was used against herself.
The two preceding examples involve outflanking a person’s subjective feelings to make him look at himself objectively, as he would look at another individual. But more often persuasion involves causing the interfering emotion to fade by creating another feeling to supplant the wrong emotions. An actual case involving a scientist illustrates this.
Scientists, often viewed as paragons of logic and objectivity, abandon reason like the rest of us when emotion intervenes. Most of them believe evolution, though it is devoid of any factual proof. The theory lacks the spontaneous generation of life it needs, the good mutations it needs, the fossil record it needs, and all the additional evidence it so desperately needs. So why do they believe it? To agree with fellow scientists? To appear wise? To downgrade the Bible? To avoid obligation to their Creator? To tickle their ego?
Whichever it is, can a different emotion be created to replace it? The scientist in this case was in the space program, versed in astronomy, and awed by the vastness of the universe and his insignificance in comparison. How could life have any meaning? It is a human need to feel that life has meaning, purpose. When this scientist had explained to him Jehovah’s purpose in creating man and putting him on earth as caretaker, his need for meaning was filled. This satisfying feeling replaced entirely his former emotional basis for believing evolution.
The Candy Eater and the Smokers
What about the question raised at the outset: Can the child that wants more candy be persuaded to limit himself? He goes to the circus, and is awestruck by the trapeze artist high above who hangs head down with a strap in his teeth. The other end is clenched in the teeth of a woman as she spins like a pinwheel, colored spotlights playing on them all the while. The boy can hardly contain himself! He’s going to be an aerialist!
“Takes very good teeth.” His father shakes his head, dubious.
“Mine are strong!” The boy’s eyes are shining.
The father thinks a while. “Milk builds teeth that can grip like a bulldog’s! I guess that man and woman drank lots of milk when they were kids.” He then looks at the boy: “I don’t know . . . you like candy . . . don’t drink too much milk.”
Nothing more was said, but from then on the boy drank lots of milk and seldom begged for candy.
And what about the smokers? Can they be persuaded to stop? Some can; some cannot. Some choose health and stop. Millions choose tobacco and continue on toward lung cancer or heart attack. But there are other incentives to quit. A teen-ager wants to be champion miler at school, more than he wants to smoke. A fifty-year-old is exhilarated by jogging, wants it more than smoking. Another wants to be considerate of his nonsmoking family and friends. Another responds to a challenge: Can he quit? He’ll prove he can!
But others, numbering in the tens of thousands, have had even a higher motivation to quit smoking. More than anything else they have desired to please their God, to be “slaves to God,” and not enslaved addicts to tobacco. (Rom. 6:16, 22) For them this indeed has been a more persuasive reason to quit tobacco than all the arguments about the health hazards of smoking.
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