How to Disagree and Persuade without Offending

How to Disagree and Persuade without Offending
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Disagreeing with someone without making him mad is an art form. So let’s talk about how to get your point across without getting into a fight.

The 6 strategies of persuasion below are best utilized when you want to be heard, understood, and considered, when you seek productive exchange, when your goals involve truth and clarity, and when you want to change someone’s mind without landing yourself in a heated argument.  

Strategy #1: Be a good listener. Your ears will never get you in trouble.

Kenneth A. Wells once said, “A good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with.”

If I had to reduce this list down to just one piece of advice to help you persuade without offending, it would be this: Ask questions until you understand your opponent’s point of view.

I’ve seen far too many silly arguments that played like shadowboxing because a person wasted time attacking his own misunderstandings.

Whenever someone shows us new information (a news report, an online article, a spoken opinion), we immediately interpret that information in light of our experiences. In other words, half of what we’re hearing comes from inside our own heads!

Only by asking questions and truly listening can we escape our presuppositions and understand another’s viewpoint, and we must understand a viewpoint before we have any hope of changing it.

Strategy #2: An open mind leaves a chance for someone to drop a worthwhile idea in it.

If you’re trying to persuade someone, there’s a good chance your mind has already closed around the conviction of your argument. Therein lies the danger –- a closed mind is great at action, but not at listening. And listening is essential to pursuasion!

I would never tell you to discard your convictions, but do remain open to suggestion, and do seek clarity. If your opponent knows you’re open to his ideas, he may entertain yours.

Strategy #3: If the world were a logical place, men would ride sidesaddle.

Use phrases like “In my opinion,” “I believe that,” or ”In my experience,” to make it clear when you’re expressing a matter of personal belief instead of a quantifiable scientific fact because this will show your opponent that you understand the difference and are open to its ramifications.

If you appear reasonable, your opponent may reciprocate.

Strategy #4: Speak two languages, one of them Body.

Effective non-verbal communication sets the stage for your persuasive argument, so it’s worth paying attention to; it’s more than window dressing, even in intimate relationships where your partner knows what you’re like behind the mask.

  • Smile to communicate friendliness and acceptance.
  • Sit up straight to project confidence.
  • Keep an open body posture (no crossed arms or legs) to communicate openness.
  • Speak in a relaxed manner (mind the tone of your voice!) to project calm and clarity of thought.
  • Make appropriate eye contact.
  • Nod when the other person speaks – this communicates understanding, not necessarily agreement.
  • Another trick to communicate understanding without compliance is to periodically say, “I understand,” or, “I hear what you’re saying.”
  • Unless your opponent possesses a difficult personality that forces you to interrupt to get in a word in edgewise, let him finish his thoughts before offering yours.

Strategy #5: Just the facts, ma’am.

At one particular Internet forum, I was constantly impressed by a member who had an amazing talent for communicating complicated (sometimes controversial) ideas without making anyone angry. So what did this Zen master of persuasion do that most of us do not? Simple: He stuck to the facts and kept his ego out of it.

The block-quote immediately below is a hypothetical example of how not to foster a persuasive conversation, intended to contrast the genius of the real-life forum example from our Zen master, further down the page:

TV-Forum Newbie: Hey guys, I think all televisions are the same. I can’t understand why some of you would pay 5 grand for a TV when the one for 500 bucks is just as good. Could someone explain this to me?

Mr. Ego: I completely disagree with you. All televisions are not the same. Why don’t you read some product reviews so you’ll be able to tell the difference? You will find differences in black level, brightness, video processing, colorimetry, geometry, contrast, and other variables. Again, all televisions are not the same, and I completely disagree with the premise of this question.

Okay, so what’s wrong with the way Mr. Ego responded? At first glance, his response seems fine. I mean, it certainly could have been worse! But only one sentence in his response focuses on the facts. The rest could easily be interpreted as a selfish assertion of ego, a quest for distinction and superiority, whether intentional or not.

So how did the Zen master handle this particular exchange? He used that one sentence I’m referring to, the one sentence that answered the question and stuck to the facts (see below):

Newbie: Hey guys, I think all televisions are the same. I can’t understand why some of you would pay 5 grand for a TV when the one for 500 bucks is just as good. Could someone explain this to me?

Zen Master: You will find differences in black level, brightness, video processing, colorimetry, geometry, contrast, and other variables.

Not very interesting, is it? But the thread from which I copied this text proceeded smoothly, with the newbie asking questions and the expert responding with simple, uncolored facts. The expert was eventually recognized for his expertise, the newbie left with newfound understanding, and no one became upset. In short, a mind had been changed.

All because the Zen master stuck to the facts.

Strategy #6: Sometimes, it’s what you don’t say that counts.

The preceding example was important not merely for what was said, but for what wasn’t. We’ve already mentioned the benefits of avoiding ego driven statements, but here’s a more comprehensive list of statements that derail persuasion more often than not:

  • Assertions of Superiority: I do it the right way; This is unacceptable; My way is better; Why can’t you do it like so-and-so; Your way of thinking is flawed.
  • Assertions of Independence: I disagree; We don’t see eye to eye; We’re not on the same page; My position is different than yours.
  • Personal Attacks: Your thinking is stupid; I can’t believe how dumb you are; Hearing you say that makes me question your morality.

Aside from the personal attacks, many of the preceding statements have their place. The key is knowing when to use them. Usually, the person seeking to persuade is better off letting the strength of his argument establish both his superiority and independence without explicitly claiming them.

These 6 simple strategies of persuasion cannot make the logic of your argument more appealing or change the nature of the person you’re trying to convince, but they can increase your odds of success. These strategies have worked for me, and I am hopeful they will work for you.

By honing your persuasive talents, you too can discover the influence inside you — an influence waiting to break free, influence others, and change the world.