Persuading Like A Freak


There is a great chapter in the book “Think Like A Freak” that I couldn’t help but appreciate given all of the online debates where lines get drawn, points are missed, and all you have in the end is hurt feelings and destroyed relationships.

The chapter is called “How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded”.

The authors start out commenting that when you start asking uncomfortable questions that you may end up at the “sharp end of someone else’s stick”.  So what should you do when things are getting heated?

They suggest smiling and changing the subject.

Why? Because persuading people who don’t want to be persuaded is just an ugly exercise.

But if you feel you need to try, there are some things you must consider.

You have to understand how hard it is to persuade people and why.

They chose to use a study someone did about scientists, data, and belief about climate change.  One would think that scientists who are good at, well, science and math and data, would have a pretty good grasp on climate change.  Why? Because they are scientists.  They wanted to prove that ignorance to science was why people were climate deniers.

They gave these people a test – some science questions, some math questions, and then some questions that were a bit more objective like “how much risk do you believe climate change poses to human health, safety, or prosperity?”

What were the results? Clearly, the scientists had the better grasp on the risks of climate change to those things, right? Wrong.


They found scientists were less likely to see risks to climate change than non-scientist – and they held more extreme views on climate change than those without the strong science and math background.

“One reason may be that smart people simply have more experience with feeling they are right, and therefore have greater confidence in their knowledge, whatever side of an issue they’re on.  But being confident you are right is not the same as being right.”

In the example given, they were picking on scientists, but I have seen this behavior in many smart people.  IT professionals do this all of the time.  They go into situations feeling they are right without all of the data which usually frustrates the users.

The authors go on to explain that people are busy with life.  People don’t have time to do all of the research needed on a complex issue like climate change, so they use gut and instinct and emotion based on information from other times in their life.  Then they stick with it.  Over time, they become so emotionally invested in their opinion that it is just going to be hard to change their minds.

So during a discussion, you will find people dig in their heels and hold their positions regardless of the evidence.  Especially when approaching them wrong.

And again, this is true too.

So how do these freaks who wrote this book suggest you have more success at changing minds?

  • “It’s not me; it’s you” – when making an argument remember you are only the producer of it, the consumer is the only one that counts.  So, no matter how much time you spend on something to persuade a person to change his/her mind, if it doesn’t resonate with the recipient – you won’t get anywhere.
  • “Don’t pretend your argument is perfect” – I loved this point because of this line: “show us a ‘perfect’ solution and we’ll show you our pet unicorn.”  Nothing is perfect.  If you gloss over the arguments imperfections, you only give ammo to the person you are trying to persuade and / or you will make them doubt anything else you have to say.
  • “Acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s argument” – This is probably the hardest thing for people to do.  I mean, you are trying to persuade someone their viewpoint is wrong, how can their arguments have any strength?  When I was debating in high school, you learn quickly to listen carefully to what they are arguing.  Why? Because you may learn something that can strengthen your own arguments.  But probably the biggest reason to do this? If an opponent doesn’t feel listened to, s/he isn’t going to engage outside of shouting and name calling.
  • Which leads nicely into “Keep the insults to yourself” – The first line of this made me laugh.  “Now you’ve gone and called your opponents a bunch of misanthropes, troglodytes, and idiots.”  Sound familiar? Just use a different name – like rape-apologists, racists, or misogynists – and oh yeah, this sounds familiar.  In the end, name calling only leads to making enemies, not allies.  And if you’re going down that path, you probably should ask yourself if persuasion was really your aim in the first place.
  • “Tell Stories” – Why you should tell stories – this is not an anecdote but a story that fills out a picture – uses data, portrays the magnitude without data, has passages of time, and daisy chains events showing the causes that lead up to something and the consequences that result.  Stories allow people to put themselves into the situation.  They capture attention better.  Good teachers know how to tell a good story – G is a great example of that.  The stuff his students remember many years later was all because he gave them all of the information in a story that tied it together.  After Trump was elected, I got pulled into a debate people were having over why it happened.  I made a few points, but they were putting little value in them because their feelings were stronger.  This changed when I changed my approach.  I told them the story about my hometown community, how life and economy changed their perspective on things, gave examples, etc.  In the end, they were at a loss of how to respond.  They had not seen the “Trump voters” as having those lives – having those issues and challenges, etc.  I should be clear that I never said I agreed with the hometown voters for Trump – just that it is really hard to be in a big city – isolated from those kinds of realities – then call people names assuming they are coming from a racist or sexist place.

I share this because as I read this chapter, I was flashing to all of the online arguments I have seen.  The arguments I have seen on places from Facebook to Fetlife.  I have watched as people on all sites have destroyed relationships and gotten into “pissing matches” that are, well, stupid.  In the end, all points are lost. No one is doing anything more than digging in their heels – and lobbing grenades at each other.

Even the other day at work – after I read this chapter – I changed my approach to a situation.  The business owner was set in his way.  He could only see one way out.  I started bringing “data to a gun fight” if you will – but then stopped.  I needed to change my tactic.  So I did.  And I shut him down.  Why? Because I appealed to what he needed at the time.  Data didn’t matter.  He wanted the story. He wanted to hear I heard his concerns.  He wanted to hear that I was taking it into consideration – even if it was whitewashing the reality.

The part of this chapter that is true – overall?

The person you are trying to convince is the consumer.  If that person doesn’t get it, you need to change your message.  So very true.

SO I guess I challenge people to look at things differently – to look at arguments differently.

And walk away from arguments where people don’t get it.

What do you think?

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