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How do we convince someone when the stakes are high?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately: What do we do when we want someone to agree with us or do what we say?

Typically, we try to convince them.

We tell them all the reasons we think our point of view is right or why they should do the thing we think they should do.

Have you ever noticed how hard that is? Have you ever noticed that it doesn’t always work very well?

When you're on the receiving end of convincing, have you ever dug in your heels more than you expected the harder someone pushed their view on you?

It’s a common response.

The reason that both trying to convince someone and being on the receiving end of convincing are hard places to be is because usually there isn’t much listening going on.

When someone passionately wants you on their side, they tend to lead from their own reasoning and experience. Your reasoning and experience gets lost in the shuffle.

We dig in our heels because we haven’t been given a voice in the matter.

This is true in everyday life - and a recent Hidden Brain podcast, Win Hearts, Then Minds, does an incredible job illustrating it (see minute 18:52 for a great example) - but it’s also true in law enforcement.

Last year, this video came out of an officer involved shooting in Toledo, Ohio.

Officers were trying to apprehend a teenager who was armed and had just robbed a local Dollar Store. The officer was remarkably calm and kind in the interaction that led up to the shooting. However, his strategy was to convince the teen to drop his gun.

Here are his words:

“What’s your name?”

“There’s no reason for this.”

“All we want to do is talk.”

“We’ll stay here all day.”

“There’s no reason for this.”

“All you have to do is put it down.”

“You’re not in that much trouble.”

“You have a long life ahead of you.”

“There’s no reason for this.”

“All you have to do is put the gun down.”

“You’ll probably just be released to your parents.”

As much as he was trying to convince the teen that the situation wasn’t that bad and all he had to do was comply, his appeals didn’t work. The teen wasn’t convinced and didn’t put the gun down. In fact, within moments, as he took one step forward, he was shot.

While there is no way to say if this interaction would have ended up differently, it is useful to consider that had the officer gotten curious about the reason the teen was there with the gun, he may have had more luck convincing him to drop it.

In order to make convincing work, it’s important to relate your message to what’s important to the person you are trying to convince.

In order to know what’s important, you have to get curious.

The officer might have noticed and verified that the young man wasn’t dropping his gun. He might have said: "You don’t want to put the gun down," and asked: "What makes you not want to?”

Or "How is holding on to the gun helping you right now?"

Or “What are you worried is going to happen?”

Or "How are you hoping this will go?"

These simple questions - questions that target the teen's decision making - could have gotten him thinking rather than resisting.

They could have directed his attention toward considering why he was out there with a gun, what he was worried about, what he was trying to prevent, and whether not dropping the gun was the best choice. They may well have revealed the teen’s “reason” to the officer. And with that information, the officer might have had the opportunity to do something different than simply repeating himself.

In the Hidden Brain episode above, the guest, Rob Willer, learned that in order to successfully convince, he had to shape his message to align with what mattered to the person he was trying to convince.

This is an important piece of human psychology to keep in mind, especially when the stakes are high.

A key step to getting there is to get curious.


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