here’s nothing more satisfying than telling someone whose views you can’t stand just how stupid, sexist, or racist they are. Especially when they deserve it.
Believe me, I get it. And especially right now, as many of us are desperately trying to change people’s minds on issues we’re passionate about — like the police system, our president, or wearing masks — it’s easy to let emotion carry you. But trust me, this tactic will never influence their beliefs.
Here’s what I’ve learned from more than a decade of studying persuasion: While there’s no surefire way to convince a person to change their mind, you can point them down a new road and trust that they’ll follow it. Here are 10 questions that will help you design an argument to make anyone rethink their opinion.
1. What am I dying to tell them?
To craft the perfect message, you must first extinguish your desire to reap emotional satisfaction. It’s tremendously difficult, but there is a centuries-old exercise that helps. It’s called the angry unsent letter, and it’s a technique that’s been used by Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and Mark Twain.
Picture the one person on whom you’d most like to unleash a verbal assault. Get a pen and piece of paper, and write down all your unfiltered thoughts.
Once you’re finished, rip the paper into shreds. It’s like hitting a punching bag when you’re angry — eventually, you exhaust yourself into a sense of calm. Now you’re capable of approaching the argument with objectivity.
2. Who is your target audience?
Get an idea of who you are trying to persuade. Picture a single person, not a group. Think of the basics about them: where they grew up, whether they practice a religion, what they do for fun, what words they use in their everyday speech. Picture what they’re wearing, their body language, and their facial expressions. Getting a clear picture of your target will help you understand them.
3. What does this person likely believe today?
Now that you know your target, you must become that person. Insert yourself into their world. Figure out what led them to their beliefs. Most of us assume we know best and others are misguided fools. Adopt that mindset from the perspective of your target. Once you understand what they believe and the reasons behind it, you’ll gain a better understanding of what it will take to change those beliefs.
4. If I believed what they believed, what would make me question my belief?
Research some examples of people who have already changed their opinion and find out what caused them to make the switch. You might check out the Change My View community on Reddit, in which people post opinions they accept may be flawed in an effort to understand other perspectives on the issue.
5. How do I get them in the right frame of mind to persuade them?
This is the money step, the argument that has the power to sway them to your side. Present your argument with the premise that their faulty belief stems from systemic or environmental reasons — what they were taught in school, for instance — not because of a personal failing. If you suggest otherwise, all you’ll get is defensiveness.
Just remember to point out that even though it’s not their fault they believed what they did, now that they know better, they have a responsibility to do something about it. When done well, the other person will feel guilt about having been on the wrong side, perhaps even anger that they were led astray, but will also feel motivated to act.
6. What do I want them to believe?
Once you’ve gotten them to question their point of view, it’s time to drive home what you want them to believe instead. Identify your end goal and craft the message you want to communicate. Write it out in a sentence or two:
“I want them to believe in climate change.”
“I want them to believe they’re part of systemic racism.”
“I want them to believe universal health care is in their best interest.”
Make the message specific and concise.
7. What’s the bigger reason you want to change this person’s mind?
What would the world look like if you helped change this person’s mind? What if you helped change the minds of everyone who believes something similar? Maybe there’d be less fear or more safety. Tell yourself it’s not just one argument you’re making. It’s tied to a larger cause.
8. What’s the smallest unit of change that I hope to see?
What specifically do you wish to ask of this person? Make the change easy — for example, maybe you want them to wear a mask on their next run. It should require a commitment, but one that won’t prove prohibitively burdensome.
9. What do they get out of it?
Identify what’s in it for them. A benefit that ties into a universal desire not only entices your target audience, but it also makes your ask appear more equitable.
10. Sneak in a pink shirt.
The end of your persuasive campaign is a chance to use what’s sometimes called the “pink shirt theory.” Let’s pretend you’re at a concert with a friend. The next day, your friend asks how many people at the concert wore pink shirts. You would have no idea because you weren’t paying attention.
But if before the concert, your friend had said, “Look for all the pink shirts,” you’d see them everywhere.
You can use this strategy to get your message across. Suppose you’re trying to persuade someone about the effects of income inequality. End with this: “When you see a failing student, there’s probably a parent working multiple jobs to survive. That’s income inequality. When you see a failing school, there’s probably a teacher lacking basic supplies. That’s income inequality.” Now when that person hears a story about a teacher fronting money for textbooks, they’ll associate it with income inequality.
By now, you’ve done everything but connect the dots — let the other person do that. If you’ve laid down your points correctly and kept your emotions in check, you can trust that they’ll end up right where you want them to.