This article’s title is an aphorism that a fantastic thinker named John Anderson once told me. It points to a classic mistake I still make on occasion. In moments that we want to persuade, we often appeal to a person’s rationality. There is a “value proposition” that roughly equates to a net benefit to another party. So we make our case, highlight those benefits, and ask for agreement. Recognizing, of course, that any fool would say yes.
Only to see a person say no. They don’t buy what you’re selling and perhaps even call you a cruel name as they do so. This leaves us frustrated and disheartened. What on earth is wrong with that person? How are they so blind as to not see a sure, good thing right in front of them?
In most cases, we know the reason. We see the other person’s emotion. We know all about their bad position. So when they don’t adopt our well-reasoned idea, we chalk it up to stubbornness. Pride. Fear. Or a simple reluctance to change.
This is certainly true but who cares?
On the other side of the discussion, the person who just heard your well-reasoned idea is probably feeling all those things. And they probably see you as an arrogant know-it-all who thinks you can tell everyone what’s wrong with them. Those facts and figures you picked? They’re all cherry-picked and completely ignore such-and-such. And that beautiful logical trap you laid? Well, you lured me in. This was never an honest conversation. You just wanted to make a point.
Both parties suffer the same problem. They’re in the wrong frame of mind. Going back to our book Difficult Discussions, you could say they’re failing to engage in a “learning conversation”.
But for different reasons. The rational argument is given by a person in “powerpoint mode” and the emotional argument is given by a person in “knife fight mode”.
And in the realm of public debates and policy arguments, this is the more accurate depiction. It often does feel like powerpoints against knives when people argue political issues. But in most situations, a more-elegant model to use is the Elephant and the Rider.
There are plenty of articles explaining the elephant and the rider so I’ll keep this short. The model describes interplay between the emotional and rational sides of our brain. The emotional side is the elephant. The rational side is the rider that sits on-top of the elephant, attempting to guide it. As the idea suggests, the fight between reason and emotion is quite assymetrical.
All this week, we’ll study the elements of persuasion that lead to change. What causes individuals to lose weight? Or go to college at 40? How is it that organizations transform themselves? What special magic turned an anti-litter campaign turn into one of the greatest slogans ever conceived?
Better yet, on the flip side, why is it that people keep doing irrational things even when I tell them to do something else that’s in their best self-interest?
The answers start with the Elephant and the Rider. Whatever the elephant wants, the elephant gets. The rider uses its tools of rationalization to justify it.
So back to the powerpoint and knife fight: when someone takes this attitude: “I’m not changing no matter what your facts and figures say,” the elephant has taken over. The only way to instill any change in this case is to appeal to emotionally-receptive approaches. Preferably after the emotions have cooled.
And definitely without the powerpoint. It’s the wrong tool. As our authors put it in this week’s featured book,
Trying to fight inertia and indifference with analytical arguments is like tossing a fire extinguisher to someone who’s drowning. The solution doesn’t match the problem. The problem is emotional, not rational or analytical.
These are words from Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of a few books we’ll feature over time. For this week, the book is Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard. In terms of daily recall and application, this might be the book that has helped my managerial practice the most. I see a lot of powerpoints and more than my share of knife fights. You probably do, too. Never the two should mix!