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Changing Minds Requires A Few More Skills--Which Most Humans Lack

Message Shirley Braverman

Imagine a situation where words really matter. Where words can really change things. Where they can change lives. A lawyer facing a jury. A politician facing an unconvinced crowd. An advocate pleading their cause before a grant committee. A mother pleading for leniency for her son before a judge. An adviser trying to lead those in power to their view of future action. Even a comedian standing before a crowd. Their success and future ride on their words and skills to lure their audience into their world.

These people are all doing the same thing, bending/reframing, illuminating their listeners to their beliefs. Inviting them into their world. Introducing them to their values. What do they all have in common?

They all follow a few simple rules.

First and foremost, like Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr., they NEVER attack their opponents! They listen to them and treat them with the utmost respect. There are rational reasons for this. The first being that you are more apt to change people's mind if they like you. So the politicians and the lawyers smile, the advocate is most pleasant and the adviser shows the utmost respect to the people who's views he most diametrically opposes. They need to "connect" in order to be effective.

The second reason why you do not attack your opponent is when you attack a person they immediately go into a defensive mode and their mind closes to any opinions you might express. When my daughter was in law school they had classes on how to be forceful without being intimidating. How to be emotionally persuasive without being overbearing or seeming to be threatening. These skills are so important the professional practices them until they are mastered.

The third reason you don't attack your opponent is simply because the ad hominem attack is one of the 98 fallacious arguments and it signifies to your opponent that you have no other valid argument to present.

The other important skill the professional advocate cultivates is the ability to "read" their opponents/audience. So at the same time you are spinning out your spiel you have to be conscious of its effect on your listener. Did they smile and nod or did they set their jaw and stiffen up? Are their eyes wide and reflecting or have they lapsed into sexual fantasies? Are they clapping or are they moaning? Sometimes it's easy to read reactions, sometimes it's harder. But it's crucial for your presentation, for your connection that you instantly process their feedback.

If you don't care about your opponent's reactions then you're really not advocating for change. You're on an ego trip and you're shooting off your mouth for your own satisfaction. You're venting. You're ranting. This may be emotionally rewarding for the speaker but it's a quick turn-off for the listener. The true professional never gives in to this temptation. As my old debating coach used to say, "If you get emotional or lose control, you've lost! You've given the victory to the other side!"

If these skills aren't enough to learn, the professional must know how to react quickly to the listener's silent cues/responses. If this part of your argument isn't working, quickly move on to another phase that you think they might respond to more favorably. If one joke bombs, move on quickly to the next. Keep on going till you get the favorable response. Then keep on the agreeable topic until your audience gets into an agreeable mood, until they get in the grove of agreeing. Then quickly toss in the disagreeable part and chances are they'll give it a better assessment than if you led off with the disagreeable fact in the first place.

The stand-up comic calls this playing the audience. What specific things are tickling the funny bones of this specific audience at this particular time? Of course the comedian has the choice of keeping out unpleasant facts altogether. However a skillful performer can get an embedded message across amid the laughs. Fact is when you're laughing, your guard is down.

Think of Richard Pryor in his prime. While you laughed you got the message about what it was like to be a black man in a white man's world. Or think of the political comedy of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The professionals do it so well, it looks easy. It isn't.

The greatest skills come when the speaker can present disagreeable facts as a positive and inspiring force and in doing so uplift and inspire their audiences. Think of the speeches of FDR and Winston Churchill during the depression and World War II. It helps when the audience wants to believe but that doesn't make it any easier. They spoke to frightened, depressed people. People under attack from the realities of a merciless world. All the leaders had, in the absence of good news, were words. But luckily they were both wordmasters. "All we have to fear, is fear itself!" and "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!"

There is another skill necessary to be a great speaker. Think and speak at the level of values. Yours and theirs. What are values? When I was a kid growing up in grade school our teachers always spoke of our characters. A magical part of us that we couldn't see, but an important part, a part we were creating. Don't damage your character by lying or cheating, or stealing, they'd say. "What you are to be, you are becoming." It was all very mysterious to me. A part of me I couldn't see. Our writing exercises were about it. "Reputation is the shadow. Character is the tree," said Abraham Lincoln. Attributes of good character were: Trustworthiness, respectfulness, responsibility, fairness, citizenship, caring. I still remember because it was always a test question.

It wasn't until high school that I got a glimmer when they began to use words like: morals, standards, principles, ideals, beliefs and ethics. Finally I could wrap my brain around the idea. As we grow older certain things become sacred to us. Things that give meaning to our lives. These things are our values. We are our values. They emanate from us each day in our words and actions. A person who knows us knows our values.

When you speak to convince others you must reveal your values to your listener/audience. You reveal what you believe in your heart of hearts and your words will reach out touching the hearts of others and if you're lucky a connection is made. Once a connection is made, once you have "touched them," "moved them," they are much more open to accepting your arguments. Convincing them becomes much easier.

These are the skills lawyers, politicians, comedians, and advocates yearn for, work for, pray for, knowing the power such skills can bestow. Learn them if you can.

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Nurse journalists for 60 years. Animal activists -- the sane kind. Author of Animal Rescue Crusaders available on Amazon and Barns and Nobel and The Nurses' Stories

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