Persuasion is as old as humanity. We spend every day having ideas – sometimes momentary, sometimes momentous – and by persuading ourselves and others of what is right or necessary, enjoyable or dangerous, we establish patterns of conviction.
These are our favoured ways of being persuaded or going about our own tasks of persuading others. In fact, each of us has a persuasive style, almost like a fingerprint. We can recognise and start to predict how those around us will try to move, or perhaps manipulate, us. And they, too, start to predict things of us, perhaps developing strategies of collaboration or competition.
At school logical reasoning is pretty high on the agenda. This reasoning, with its well-worn tracks, helps to give confidence that you have the right answer to a maths problem, or that the chemistry experiment is not going to blow up in your face. Through reasoning, often involving careful sifting of evidence or studying what causes what, we can come up with conclusions that support or undermine a case we may choose to argue.
Cognitive kinds of people may have a very rigid persuasive style: they may be unprepared to go beyond the evidence given, or to accept arguments involving shades of grey. But most of the time, most of us are prepared to extrapolate, from the certain into the more hypothetical. And some questions simply jump right out of the well-worn tracks of reasoning and invite cross-country improvisations. Deep probings such as ‘who am I?’ or ‘where is the world going’ raise so many factors that formal reasoning may just not, in itself, be enough. So, processes of conscientious reasoning appeal to answering some questions more than others, and are attractive to some personalities over others. Of course, many people just ignore the conclusions of reasoning because they are inconvenient, or genuinely ‘just don’t see’, for instance, how global warming could possibly be man-made.
Most of us spend a good deal of our time relying on our senses and spontaneous feelings to guide us through the day. If it feels bad, if it smells off, if it sounds weird, if it makes our hair stand on end, our instincts, informed by life experience, often tell us to cross the street.
But if matters appear to click and the hormones are racing, we may just throw that conscientious reasoning to the wind. We can become impulsive and take risks: buying a house before we have a mortgage, forming a relationship when we know next to nothing about last night’s date, or accepting a job before you have even negotiated the salary. Often triggered by our senses – five, seven, or ten, take your pick – feelings of anger, fear, love or hate may drive some really big life decisions, sometimes to eternal regret, but sometimes by impulsively seizing the winning position while others are still thinking the matter through.
Well honed instincts can lead to insightful gut reactions: spontaneous, often emotional, responses that can be difficult to tell apart from passionate prejudice.
Then there is the world of faith: the things you explicitly believe in, or the people in whom you have enduring trust. Without some level of trust, our world collapses, so we all have some component of faith in our makeup, whether we have formalised it as adherence to a religion, a political ideology, a cultural approach, or just have deep confidence in, say, the goodness of art. More than the rational thinkers or the emotive feelers, the true believers have a special attribute: they know what they have to do, think or feel, whether their sacred text is the Koran, the Communist Manifesto, a charity’s strategic document or even Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good; greed is right; greed works” touchstone in the 1987 film Wall Street.
Faith, then, through worship or love, often requires some degree of surrender of do it yourself thinking or feeling in the name of group belief and identity. Indeed, our world relies for its stability on the trust that we trusting ordinary people bestow on a chosen few trustees. Through that trust, faith can be a hugely powerful tool of persuasion, for instance, in quoting immutable articles of the faith to followers, in support of proposed actions, or in relying on the testimony of trusted experts. But the age old weakness of faith is that, in reality, its adherents tend to ‘cherry pick’, favouring this or that commandment or testimonial over another. At one moment you may be called on to ‘love thy neighbour’, while the next brings a call for retribution. Hence, the vigorous jousting between claims of ‘true’ and ‘false’ witness to faith, which is every bit as prevalent as today’s contest between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news.
These three tools of persuasion – reasoning, feeling, believing – are the basic ingredients of our persuasive styles, and most people use a distinctive mix of all three. A priest, advocating a religious cause, will normally display a different balance from a scientist, presenting a conference paper. Then, again, the one individual varies according to circumstance: in a courtroom, at after work drinks, or putting the children to bed. A skilful politician can even roll up all three within one sentence!
Recent populist uprisings in so many parts of the world can be seen as an expression of the outrage of ordinary feeling and trusting people against the self interested, sometimes casuistic, mind games of over-confident elites.
Recent polls of professional trust, in Australia and elsewhere, reveal how highly nurses or teachers are still trusted, while faith in business leaders and lawyers, and especially politicians and bankers, has been severely eroded.
A few weeks ago I was taking a leadership development course for fifteen mid-career women in eastern Hungary, and working on their individual styles of persuasion. I posed this scenario to them: “You are a non-executive director of a company. What relative balance of reasoning, feelings, or trust would you use in assessing the work of the company’s executive team?” I was surprised that the results were pretty much the same as I have seen in Britain or Australia, working with mixed or all-male groups.
Firstly, all members of the Hungarian group gave at least 10% to each form of persuasion, but some gave up to 60% for one form, either reasoning or feelings. Averaged out, 42% of their ratings went to reasoning (such as from interrogating financial accounts); 27% to feelings (for instance, of their confidence in management style, or just feeling respected), and 31% to trust (naming, for example, their faith in ‘people like us’ or those with high qualifications). “Is it wrong to judge executives primarily on the basis of feelings, or instincts?”, we debated. How sceptical or trusting should 'trustees' be? Is an evidence based approach necessarily any more successful than less logical approaches in separating the administrative sheep from the goats?
And if you cannot rely on your own feelings, then what really can you trust?
A common technique of the wily is to play up or downplay one or other of these persuasive tools. President Donald Trump is very reliant on such techniques, if you had not already noticed. In late November he commented to The Washington Post, in relation to American economic management: “... I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” Then, again, a few days earlier he had represented the CIA’s ‘findings’ about the involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince in a recent murder as just ‘feelings’, and so justifying his view that “maybe he [the Prince] did and maybe he didn’t” plan the murder. And he ventured further into that beloved realm of dodgy debaters, the double (or triple) negative: “I’m not saying that they [the CIA] are saying he didn’t do it, but they didn’t say it affirmatively.” The President even ruminated about his own persuasive style: “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself [have is that] we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers.” Trump is not alone in this world in deliberately confusing reasoned findings, emotive feelings, and the trust of the faithful.
A better guide is the Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose The Art of Rhetoric, from the fourth century BC, is a masterly guide to the tool-box of persuasion, as well as its ultimate service to perceptions of human character: “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him believable... His character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” Today, we sometimes call such people 'authentic'. But beware. While people willingly put trust in tomorrow’s charismatic winners, they equally love to rubbish yesterday’s heroes. Faith is ever fickle.
Brisbane born musician Malcolm Gillies has worked across Britain, the United States, Hungary and Australia in a long career that culminated in the presidency of two inner London universities and chairing of the advocacy body for London’s fifty-odd universities. Malcolm is an author or editor of a dozen books, ranging from higher education policy to governance and studies of the composers Béla Bartók and Percy Grainger. He now works out of Canberra as a consultant, most recently on the Australia Council’s funding frameworks. In his spare time Malcolm loves to swim, play the piano, do Sudoku, and take part in good arguments.