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How to Convince an Opponent

Founder of and CEO of Success Drivers
// Pioneering Causal AI for Insights since 2001 //
Author, Speaker, Father of two, a huge Metallica fan.

Author: Frank Buckler, Ph.D.
Published on: February 22, 2022 * 5 min read

Let’s face it. Convincing is impossible. Full stop.

The same way a conservative can not convert a serious liberal (vise versa), or a government can not convince a die-hard anti-vaxxing activist (vise versa), the same way a Creative Director will not convince the head of quant modeling, that quant is about counting pees.

While I feel too that the mission is impossible, I found mind-blowing evidence that gave me hope. I found inspiring pieces of science that show the tricks and trades to bring people’s convictions closer together. Imagine how powerful it would be if company silos would no longer fight each other but become ally’s in one common mission … if political streams would cooperate, not shout at each other.

This story is about three scientifically validated principles on how “convincing” works. Spoiler: whoever wants to convince, will fail!

David was just been named the Customer Experience leader in a bank and was full enthusiasm, he build a full blows CX Management system including a state-of-the-art customer experience insights system. Everything went well and he got lots of compliments.

Until this day, when the second time in a row the NPS dropped, although the organization was using his system.

“What’s wrong Dave”, did Frank, the CEO, stare at him. Leaning back in his black-leathered chair he was expecting a promising answer.

David had a suspicion. It’s hard to improve customer experience when the CFO sees them just as costs … if the COO is looking more at efficiencies and thinking about CX as fuzzy fluff.

David’s new mission was to make his company more customer-centric. “CX is not just something for marketing or service people. If the whole company has not had a customer-centric culture, it gets hard.”

David reached out to Mel, the CMO of the company. “You need to explain better and bring data and evidence that it works,” she said. David knew Mel is always right.

Six months later David realized however, this didn’t was satisfactory either. Easier explanations, nicer dashboards, and clear impact fiscal impact estimators still left the C-Suite hesitant.

“Why?” David asked himself.

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PRINCIPLE #1: Build Common Ground

As Julia Galef points out in her TED talk [1]: science found clear trades of people, that are able to see the truth in data: You must be CURIOUS to learn new things. You must be OPEN to new ideas and GROUNDED so that you are ok if the evidence will prove you wrong.

While we can’t make everyone Curious, Open, and Grounded, we can spark this trade in every person by a simple rule: 

Speak to your “opponents” personal interests. 

A creative director wants to win creative awards and wants it to be seen as a creative genius. The CFO wants to create bottom line profits and the COO wants to cut costs. The anti-vaxxer wants freedom and the government re-elected. Become crystal clear about the mutual interest of your opponents, accept them, and find ways to build bridges.

If you want to convince your COO, talk about how a better customer experience will create less friction and more efficiencies. 

But it does not stop there. Research by Stanford sociologist Robb Willer found it takes more to win opponents’ hearts [2]. It’s not about what you say but how you say it. In essence, you need to bring transparency about your and your opponent’s underlying values. According to Willer: while liberals are convinced by highlighting care and equality, are conservatives more receptive to values like group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. 

As Julia Dhar – three-time World School Debate Championship winners- puts it [3]: You need to build common ground. You need to find a shared purpose. Something that unites you both first. Only then the debate can be productive.

Convincing is not about you and your opinion. It’s first of all about them, about their interests and values.

David took up the challenge. He first verbalized the top priorities of the board and emphasized that they are interdependent instead of competing. He managed to even estimate the impact of CX initiatives not only on the top line (increase customer value) but also how they can holistically decrease costs. 

Still. Staring eyes.

“What’s wrong?” David asked himself. “didn’t I bridge interest and carefully catered their values?”

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Principle #2: Create Positive Emotions

It’s not enough to say the right things. You need to wrap it in a story. Science found that an impactful story must be also positive to drive change in conviction [4]. No surprise that negative stories of drug prevention campaigns do not work.

As Professor Jamil Zaki found is that the longer a debate lasts the more cynical we tend to get. This has devastating effects. Cynicism may be pampering our own bubble but will close opponents’ hearts forever. Instead, any attempt to convince must be filled with optimism that a common solution is possible. This has proven effective in scientific experiments [6].

Other research emphasizes this and elaborates: stories must not only be positive but be designed to create emotional moments [5]. Only if you touch people, you move them.

A story is much more than a narrative. It relies on a relatable hero, starting with a description of the context, followed by an unfortunate event that disrupts the balance of life, the heroes measured to restore the balance typically fails at least once until this final moment where the heroes have the final chance to create a happy end.

David went on. In his LinkedIn feed popped up Jeff. He was a peer CX leader in a health insurance company. Jeff was bragging about his success teaming up with the whole organization in the pursuit of customer-centricity. 

David convinced Jeff to record an interview with him over Zoom. Jeff happily illustrated his story in 3 minutes and even had invited his COO to talk highly about Jeff.

David showed this cut 2min video at the next board meeting. Everyone was very positive.

But the next day David met his CEO who had sensed something different. “David” he said, “Although your convincing techniques are great, the team is still hesitant for a simple reason

Principle #3: Build TRUST

Science found that presenting selected “convincing” facts typically has the OPPOSITE effect – referred to as “backfire” or “boomerang effect” [7]. 

This is why you need to start any convincing by acknowledging the opponent’s view. In fact, any opinion holds a part of the total truth.

If there is even a slides piece you can relate with you can start like “I think in part you are right. Can I elaborate on the things I believe I can add to improve the total picture?”

When confronted with some arguments you find ridiculous, you can say “I have never thought about this exactly that way. What can you share so that I can see what you see”

The underlying process is that you are framing yourself not as an opponent but as a friend. If you are an “opponent” in the recipient’s mind  – you are lost!

“Most people are willing to learn, but very few are willing to be taught.” Winston Churchill 

This is one of the reasons that it turned out in scientific experiments, that stories told in the the  person are more convincing than in the first person. This third person has a clean sheet and can be better related with. (this is why this article tells Davids story, not mine 😉 ). 

The third person is not suspicious of the intent to change the recipient’s mind [8]. It even doesn’t matter if the story is true or fictive.

Whenever it stinks like you are here to convince someone, you get resistance. 

Let it go! “Aim for progress, not victory” is what Julia Dhar is recommending [9].

Your reputation is your condensed past. Did you try to trick or manipulate others? Then your reputation might be to be an enemy. This is a hopeless start to convince others.  FOX will never convince a liberal and CNN never do so with die-hard conservatives.

What does it all mean: the more you want to convince, the less you will succeed! 

Work on your mindset. Accept people’s right to own their own opinion. Accept that every one of us holds a different piece of the truth. Only together we can solve the puzzle of truth.

With this mindset, good “convincing” is better described as “inspiring” and “inviting to a collaborative discourse”

David realized that someone else needs to lead the movement. His reputation was too much about fighting for a customer than finding a collaborative solution.

It was this reference video with the shining eyes of this insurances COO that made Frank. David’s CEO, think.

David had won Frank’s heart. Frank could start from scratch with a blank reputation on customer-centricity. He took the forge and waved in the new theme in all his dialogs. 

Here is what David had learned along his way on how to convince others formerly seen as “opponents”

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In a Nutshell

Principle#1 – Build Common Ground

  • Speak to your “opponents” personal interests
  • Argue on the “opponents” personal values

Principle#2 – Create Positive Emotions

  • Be positive and optimistic rather than negative and cynic
  • Weave your information in a story 
  • Make sure this story creates an emotional aha moment

Principle#3 – Build Trust

  • Do not intent to convince, intent to inspire
  • Start always acknowledging the opponent’s view
  • Guard your reputation as your biggest asset. In doubt, let someone with a clean sheet help you.

Wait, wait, wait! Isn’t a “convincing formula” very manipulative?

“Manipulation” is a mindset and the “formula” recommends to shy away from it because it does not work. Instead, please accept that every human has a right to his own opinion. Ironically this mindset is mandatory to have an impact on someone’s opinion. I don’t think there is something wrong with inspiring other people. Actually, it is very kind to help others to see the truth.

In this article, I do not suggest NLP-type persuasion techniques to trick the opponent’s unconscious self. Instead, it is all about giving information that is relevant to the person. It is all about making clear that you are not an opponent but in the same boat. It is all about being helpful by sharing information in a way it can be understood.

What’s wrong with that?

Isn’t it better to stay who you are – as authentic as possible – you, giving your point of view?

There is nothing more authentic and raw than going naked with unwashed hair to a wedding. But this is rude and disrespectful.

The same is to simply say what you think. It does not acknowledge that the other person may also possess a piece of the truth. It implicitly conveys the message “you are stupid and/or asocial”. 

Most of all, it is not only a waste of time and energy. It will create negative energy that will backfire.

The same punishment you will have when showing up naked at your friend’s wedding, you will receive by just being blunt and “honest”.

Being strategic when trying to inspire others is the most respectful, human, and productive thing you can do.

Convincing? Isn’t  “Marketing Communication” another term for it? Old wine in new pipes?

I used to think so. But I could not be more wrong. While diving into the topic I realized that marketing is a fundamentally different discipline. Here is why.

Marketing is trying to move people who are mostly already convinced that they have a problem or there is a job to be done. If I have hunger, I am looking for a product and I feel like eating. Marketing is trying to persuade that a particular product does the job best.

“Convincing” is the task to change the whole attitude of a person. To convince is converting a hater into a lover. In marketing terms: “Convincing” is trying to sell tree huggers a 1000 PS Lamborghini.

Marketing avoids these challenges for a good reason. It’s just too costly.

But when politics invest in for instance “vaccination campaigns”, they hire marketing experts that have no clue about convincing. The result is a growing -instead of a reduced- amount of anti-vaxxer. It is a total waste of tax money.

What do you think? Did I miss something?

Let me know!


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