How should believers in freedom try to persuade other people to share their beliefs? Many people believe that they should come up with good arguments, great examples, and moving stories. All of those work — some of the time.
Are there other ways of persuasion that work? I think so. One way, paradoxically, is to give up trying to persuade and instead ask questions. Another way is to settle for one tenth of a loaf. But first, let’s consider why it’s so hard to persuade our fellow humans.
Realizing Capital Losses
Libertarians face the same problem faced by anyone who tries to change people’s minds: most people are strongly attached to their ideas. Michael Walker, formerly the executive director of Canada’s Fraser Institute, once recounted to me a conversation he had had with Friedrich Hayek. Michael had told Hayek how frustrated he was that some of his best logic and evidence seemed to fall on deaf ears. Hayek smiled as if he had heard that complaint hundreds of times. He probably had. Then he said, “One of people’s most treasured forms of private property is their ideas. So when you convince them that an idea they had was wrong, you have caused them to suffer a capital loss.”
There’s a lot to that. I rarely run into people who, when convinced that something they believed was wrong, react with delight. There’s usually some degree of mourning for their “capital loss.”
That suggests that, at a minimum, you should try to persuade people gently: let them realize their capital loss gradually.
Ask Good Questions
But there’s more to say. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that effective persuaders often sway others indirectly, simply by asking good questions.
Some years ago, a colleague of mine had his students pair off according to their views on a controversial issue, one student on one side of the issue and the other on the opposite. He gave the “persuader” five minutes to try to persuade the “persuadee” of his viewpoint. When the time was up, he asked the “persuaders” to raise their hands if they had persuaded their partner. Many hands went up. Then he asked the “persuadees” to raise their hands if they had indeed been persuaded. Many fewer hands went up.
He then asked the persuaders who incorrectly thought they had convinced their partners to tell what their strategy had been. Invariably, they said that they had been at their rhetorical best, using logic and evidence to make their case. He then asked the persuaders who had succeeded to explain their strategy. Almost invariably, they said that they had simply asked questions. Why do you think what you think? Have you ever thought differently? Do you remember when you thought that way? What kinds of evidence would persuade you? If you thought this particular fact was not a fact, would that change your mind?
Why did this approach work? My view is that the questions loosened things up, making it safer for the persuadee to think about why he (I use “he” because the students were U.S. military officers, almost all of whom were male) really did think what he thought. He didn’t feel under assault by a powerful logic machine coming at him. Once he got to think that way, to express it, and to feel heard, he felt more open to a different viewpoint. That means that both the persuader and the persuadee were working together, with the persuadee doing most of the work, to come to a resolution. In the more typical case where the persuader simply argued, the persuadee was probably using his mental energy to resist.
Sometimes people hand you the right question to ask. One example I’ve seen a lot is when someone says, “I just don’t understand how someone can believe X.” The most common response is that a person who believes X then tries to explain why he believes it. That’s a natural reaction. After all, the original person said he didn’t understand, so it was natural to try to make him understand.
But there’s a crucial missing step, so I always take that step. My first reaction, as someone who believes X, is to say, “You don’t understand, and you want to understand?” Sometimes the person will reply that he doesn’t, or, more commonly, he won’t answer the question at all, but will simply go on to explain why he doesn’t believe X. In that case, I don’t try. But occasionally the person responds “Yes, I really would like to.” That means that he has opened his mind just a little, and so I try to explain.
One Tenth of a Loaf Is Better Than None
Persuasion is gradual. Whatever methods you use, you are unlikely to persuade someone to agree with you completely. Think back to how you came up with your ideas and I think you’ll find that even though you had “Saul on the road to Damascus” moments, most of your views are ones you came to gradually. Remember that fact when talking to others.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re trying to persuade someone that the minimum wage is bad because it destroys job opportunities for some of the most vulnerable people. There’s a good chance that the person you’re trying to persuade has never heard that argument. A standard reaction you will often get back — since, remember, the person does not want to suffer a “capital loss” — is that while that might be true, there are offsetting gains to those low-wage workers who do keep their jobs.
There are good arguments to make once the person makes that claim. You might want to make them. You also might not want to. Why? Because notice how you have already slightly succeeded. The other person’s “while that might be true” is pure gold. This person has allowed into his brain the idea that there are tradeoffs where he previously saw none. I can’t say that you shouldn’t continue to challenge the person’s claim about offsetting gains. What I can say is that you should regard not challenging as an option — accepting the concession graciously might get you further.
Notice a word I have not used: opponent. I have not told you how to persuade your opponent. Why? Because if you see the person you’re trying to persuade as your opponent, you will likely try to beat him. That’s almost never good. People whom you have beat usually feel beaten.