A Model for Persuasive Conversations

I recently read an interesting blog post that basically posits many arguments center around competing unstated priorities as the only substantive subtext to whether we're 'for or against' specific policies. The author says we should focus on bringing out each participant's priorities so we can get to the bottom of the disagreement, and that focus on policy positions is a distraction.  I think this is sound advice.  Near the end of the post, he says, "The “I’m not against X” move doesn’t work. I’m not sure what does."  I'd like to argue for a model I've used in the past and found to be very effective at preventing argument and shifting opinion with people who might otherwise be prone to intransigence.

I often hear people lament that those who disagree with them "on the [Left/Right]" are simply incapable of accepting their sound arguments.  This lament has always reminded me of a certain demotivational poster: "The only consistent feature of all your dissatisfying relationships is you."  If you often find yourself losing arguments - by which I mean getting into disagreements where there's no hope you will change the other person's perspective in the least - consider a test-run of the following strategy:


  1. Your first aim should not be to try to change their mind, but to state their case better than they do.  This often has the unintended side effect of making them believe you're on their side.  Don't lie about where you stand, but do start at a place of firm agreement.  Starting at the place where the other side has built their foundation is the most effective.  This pattern is much less effective if you try to shift to it long after a debate is underway.  It takes a lot of finesse to back-peddle into this system, so try not to start out wrong.
  2. After establishing that you fundamentally value the same thing, call out serious problems with your side.  It's much better to strongly state the valid objections to your own preferred solution than it is to let the other side call them out.  Since you're doing this right after stating their case - and before stating your own, your would-be opponent isn't opposed to you at this point.  They're firmly in favor of you continuing in this vein.  In fact, if you do this well enough, they'll be hoping to learn something from you.  They might even quote your arguments in support of their position later on.
  3. Continue calling out problems, but this time shift to identifying problems with their favored solution to the issue you identified in (1).  If you do this honestly, it will lead them to consider this as an open problem that needs to be addressed, not as a subtle attempt to get your digs in at their side.  Remember that you haven't yet established yourself in opposition to them.
  4. Restrict your line of reasoning to one major point you want the other side to walk away with.  You're likely not going to convert someone over night, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to introduce critical thinking of one specific element of concern on this subject?  That would be a solid win.
  5. Walk away with your win.  Don't keep selling past the close.  You might want to posit your own preferred solution at this point, but that's probably a bridge too far.  Depending on how far apart you're starting from the person you're talking with, you'll only end up in an argument if you start to push past one or two major points.  You won't convince a solid pro-lifer to support government-funded abortions in one sitting, any more than they would be likely to convince you to support overturning Roe v. Wade.
It helps if you actually identify with the issue they care about and are not secretly trying to get your digs in.  The point of this strategy is not to trick someone into agreeing with you, but to frame the discussion in such a way that they are willing to consider both sides.  That really means both sides, though.  You have to start by assuring them you're seriously considering their side, not dismissing it.  The quickest way to lose is if this devolves into an argument.  If that happens, abandon ship.

An example will help here.  I'm not a socialist.  I think there's a problem with socialism that it keeps getting co-opted by dictators.  Instead of egalitarian regimes you end up with dictatorships supported by an oligarchy and all this is paid for by extracting wealth from the people.  Ironically, this is exactly the thing socialists are fighting against.  And I do accept that most socialists are in it for the betterment of mankind.  It's just very concerning that their model doesn't sometimes fail, it has always failed in a way that works against the betterment of mankind.  That should concern every socialist, but I fear it doesn't in any meaningful way.  When I've visited socialist discussion boards there is no serious discussion of this problem.  Anyone who brings it up is dismissed out of hand.

With this in mind as my goal (step 4), let's get to the example.  What follows is a paraphrased conversation I had with an avowed socialist.  It's a typical example of how I've used this system to change minds and shift debate.

Socialist: [Signaling language about how great socialism is, and how it's exactly what we need to solve the world's problems.]  Down with capitalism!

Me: It is crazy that we solved the problem of producing sufficient food to feed the world's population years ago, and now we're in world of surplus for some, but deficiency for many others.

S: I know, right?  Capitalists don't see how their ideas repress poor people.  We need a more egalitarian system like socialism.

M: Libertarians like to claim the problem of poverty will be resolved through charity, but it's not clear that's the case.  For one thing, we should have expected it to be solved by now if that were true.  For another, we have specific examples of where charity is insufficient to solve poverty.

S: Like rich billionaires, right?

M: Actually, a better example is charity to Africa.  At one point in the 1990's, the nation of Rwanda was getting 80% of charity dollars to the whole continent.  Under the charity-solves-poverty theory that much cash should be enough to make Rwanda a first world country.  But the money went to a regime that repressed large numbers of people.  Charity, directed toward despots, literally enabled mass killing.  The fact that the enabling was unintentional doesn't fix the problem.  The libertarian idea of charity didn't solve poverty in Rwanda.  One reason all that money went to a repressive regime was due to good 'advertising' on the part of one country, which isn't a strong endorsement of free markets functioning well to solve problems.  That money could easily have gone to another country, but even then it's hard to say whether charitable dollars would have been beneficial or detrimental to the local population, as in the case of Rwanda.  Clearly the 'charity will fix it' angle isn't enough to cover capitalism's shortfalls in solving the problem of poverty.

S: Yeah, that's the problem with private charity.  It doesn't always go where you want it to go.

M: The real problem in Rwanda was bad governance and historical feuds.  Capitalism isn't a cure for either of those things.  In fact, when we look around the world, we see this same pattern of poor governance structures supporting dictators who prevent people from rising out of poverty.  If the same charity dollars we spend today always went to people who were well governed we might make much better headway at helping lift people out of extreme poverty.  So there's no point calling for rich billionaires to give more money if it's all just going to despots.

S: Yeah, that's why we need socialism!  That way all the charity dollars could go to the people who need them most, instead of to the best connected military groups trying to stay in power.

M: The problem is that too many dictators co-opt socialist movements in their rise to power.  They either call themselves socialist when they're not, or they corrupt the work of real socialist revolutionaries to fit their totalitarian ends.  This not only suppresses real revolutionary movements, it adds to repression and gives socialism a bad name.  Any calls for socialist revolution are met with countless examples of people who claimed they were starting a socialist revolution - with all the signs that's what they were doing - but it fell into despotism instead.

S: Yeah that is a real problem, but how do we solve it?

M: I don't know.  It's a major problem with the socialist model as currently formulated and implemented.  It holds people back from supporting socialism, because they don't want to support the rise of the dictators who consistently use the cause for their own ends.  It's what keeps me from supporting current efforts that haven't solved the dictator issue.

S: I can see that.  Of course socialism is the way to ensure poor people are taken care of, but there are clearly issues we need to resolve to make it more popular with the public.

My goal was not to get the socialist to abandon socialism.  My goal was to have an honest conversation about how often socialism as an idea does not match its actual implementation.  I wanted to say, "that's a problem socialists need to solve, and I shouldn't be expected to support a movement that has the dictator problem."  I was able to do so, and I was actually able to get her to agree with me.

Also, because I was willing to accept - and even call out - problems capitalists have encountered with solving the issue of poverty we didn't get diverted down the branching path of arguing all the ways poverty can or can't be addressed through capitalism.  This doesn't require me to be disingenuous.  It's simply true that capitalism has produced massive amounts of wealth, and yet has not conquered poverty.  The typical free-market response to this is that it has already lifted billions of people out of poverty and is the goose that will continue to lay golden eggs if we just let it.  Again, making that point was beyond the scope of my goal for the conversation, so I didn't bring it up.  What I did bring up was the strongest arguments she could make against capitalism, which includes the argument that we have enough resources to solve poverty today but we've so far failed to do so.  That's true, and it is a problem.

I noticed she often used the word "we" during our conversation to talk about socialism and how to solve its inherent problems.  Even though I was careful not to make any statements in support of socialism, she assumed I was on her side.  But who's to say I'm not on her side?  We both support building a world where poverty is reduced or eliminated.  We both agree that current levels of global wealth are sufficient to solve that problem, but haven't.  I shouldn't have to agree with her on every particular (including socialism) to share her fundamental goal and be 'on her side'.  I disagree with people on lots of things, and yet we can cooperate to make a better world.  She assumed I'm on her side because when it comes to the deep down issue of poverty I am, even if I vehemently oppose her surface efforts to implement socialism as a remedy.  I could have chosen to focus on our surface disagreement and have an argument, but instead I took the deep concern seriously and we had a great discussion.

Personally, I'm not ideologically invested in solving the issues with socialism.  I'm not a true believer, so I'm not convinced there are solutions to those problems.  But I didn't bring any of that up because it's a matter of speculation, and was beyond the scope of my original goal, which was to discuss the fact that there are legitimate concerns with socialism.  Concerns that need to be addressed before rational people can be expected to support it.

Try this model out and let me know how it goes.  Whether you're arguing against socialism or for it, against abortion or for it, etc., the end result should be a conversation where you're able to bring up and seriously discuss legitimate problems that too often get brushed aside in an argument.  That's the upside.   The downside is that you have to actively make the strongest legitimate arguments against your side, instead of getting to brush them aside in turn.  That's a price worth paying if your ideas have any merit.

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