Admit it….we are all very lacking in persuasive communication skills. Both progressives and conservatives are guilty of the “I’m right and you’re stupid” approach. Round and round we go, spewing our “indisputable” opinions, but what effect is it having? Are we winning anyone over with the approach that they either agree or they are stupid/insane/evil/racist? Is the growing division between us healing our country in any way?
I just finished “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin“ and was struck with the simple yet clever communication skills he put into practice. Considering that his fellow Philadelphians put him in charge of just about everything, I’m sure we’d agree that he was on to something.
“Use your words.” That’s what moms are always advising their little ones who are having trouble expressing themselves, and Ben learned to be very selective in the words he used:
“…retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.”
He goes on to include this quote:
Pope says, judiciously: “Men should be taught as if you taught them not, And things unknown propos’d as things forgot;”
You can immediately see how these chosen phrases won’t put anyone on the defense, as it would have if he had expressed it in a indisputable, know it all way. There’s nothing complicated about this technique. Parents use a similar approach when they ask their children which choice they want instead of giving them the power of a yes or no answer. The child feels empowered instead of defensive, like it was their decision all along.
He brings this technique up again later in the book:
I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.
In that section, we also see that it is a clever way to be able to back off a previously held opinion that turns out to be wrong. Call it “saving face Ben’s way.”
His persuasive skills were clearly well known to everyone, as his assistance and advice was often sought out when others needed help in arguing for their causes. One example was the chaplain who was not having any success at getting the enlisted men to attend his services. Ben had a very quick and easy fix for that particular problem:
When they enlisted, they were promised, besides pay and provisions, a gill of rum a day, which was punctually serv’d out to them, half in the morning, and the other half in the evening; and I observ’d they were as punctual in attending to receive it; upon which I said to Mr. Beatty, “It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were to deal it out and only just after prayers, you would have them all about you.” He liked the tho’t, undertook the office, and, with the help of a few hands to measure out the liquor, executed it to satisfaction, and never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended; so that I thought this method preferable to the punishment inflicted by some military laws for non-attendance on divine service.
Clearly, we can all make inroads by being more careful in our wording and instead of putting others on the defense, allow them to feel that their opinion is valued. Try Benjamin Franklin’s simple yet effective power of persuasion and if all else fails, serve rum.