Cornered: Giving People Room To Be Wrong

Influence, Persuasion, and Redemption in an era of extreme individualism.

Right now, with the device you are reading this essay on, you can send a message to the inbox of any other person on the planet for any reason at all. Every one of us is open to the opinions of 7 billion people, and they are open to ours. The opportunity to influence entire populations of people is at critical mass, yet we have a wholly ineffective way of doing it.

In the 1930s, Dale Carnegie had a lecture circuit called How to Win Friends and Influence People. It was wildly popular with salespeople who were in the very new, uncharted territory of consumer sales, which relied on persuading total strangers to your way of thinking. You know, Influencing People. The resulting book of the same title has sold over 30 million copies in the 80ish years since it’s publishing. It’s worth the buy (you can find it used anywhere), but the main idea is this:

Effectively influencing people leaves them feeling like they made the right choice in aligning with your thinking.

If someone doesn’t arrive at a choice of their own volition, is it really their choice? If it isn’t really their choice, then has the influencer effectively influenced?

What does it mean if you have to coerce someone into agreeing with you? Not sold, or argued, but coerced? The rhetoric used to gain influence over others impacts the quality of their commitment, which may be far different from what we expect to receive from those we thought we knew and trusted.

It would be wonderful to think everyone should do the right thing because it is a decent human thing to do. Wouldn’t that make everything easy? Trouble is, not everyone agrees what the right thing is or how to go about doing the right thing. We’re in an age of convoluted doctrines — it’s hard to see the definitive line between what might be right or wrong. What I think is right, and you think is right, are often two different things for two completely valid reasons. There are plenty of ways to be right, and we have a world of information at our fingertips to back up whatever position we take and validate our feelings on an issue or debate.

How does one go about changing a mind that might not know it needs to be changed?

This Or That

Every person is an individual. I am, you are. Each of us unique and identifies somewhere on the spectrum of vast options. You can be socially liberal and fiscally conservative, but only when taxes aren’t due!

Yet, we look at strangers with polarity. They are either A or B, this or that, for or against. For every “I believe this is right,” everyone you encounter is some degree of wrong.

Andrew Garfield in Silence. Paramount Pictures.

In the 2016 film Silence, two 17th century Jesuit priests (played by the poorly-bearded Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) travel to Japan to investigate the fate of their missing mentor (played by an equally poorly-bearded Liam Neeson). After sneaking onto the shores of the country, the two priests are taken in by an impoverished merchant colony who practices Christianity in secret. The priests give them the few tokens of faith they have — a rosary, small crucifixes — and the merchants covet these items as they have little else to hang onto.

In the 17th century, Japan wasn’t a great place for Christians, or any outsider or anyone practicing any faith, as the ruling shogunate was built upon on strict a caste system. Faith gave the lower castes hope, which threatened the noble classes. If you were suspected of being a Christian you had two options: you either openly apostatized — give up your faith — or subject yourself to a slow, torturous death.

Throughout the film, we see several peasants forced to apostatize by setting their foot on a stone tile depicting Christ. That’s it! Place your foot on the stone, and you’re free to go — it took little else to appease the emperor’s sheriffs. A performance so easy, some characters do it several times throughout the film.

The priests are tortured, or forced to watch their congregates endure torture, because of their reluctance to perform the simple act of stepping on the stone tile. The edict from the emperor was unforgiving; Japan was an isolated country in that time — nothing, not even a spirit from above, was to influence the country’s citizens.

If a priest steps on a picture of their savior or destroys a bible, does God really forsake them? Does it matter how many Christians you convert, when your duty is to spread the good word of God and be kind to others? Is someone no longer Christian because they step upon a fabricated symbol? Is it better for them to just stay silent?

Polarity is easier to monitor and define, but flexibility will always be more sustainable. Not so much, “which side are you on?” but “can you slide a little further to my end of the spectrum?”

Open a conversation by telling someone how they are wrong, and you will never hear the end of how they think they are right.

You will likely never catch a dog running loose through the neighborhood. Even the short ones have unreasonably swift legs. They have to be bribed and coaxed back to their leash, distracted with a box of treats and a spoonful of peanut butter. Back a strange, scared animal into a corner, you get teeth every time. Even seasoned members of animal control know to use caution, and a long catchpole, to secure the animal.

In a boxing ring, two opponents face off. They beat on each other for three minutes before the bell rings, the round ends, and the ref sends them back to their corner. There, coaches cut open swollen eyes, slather oil, and hydrate their athletes. They tell them what they might be missing — protect your left, keep your head down, he’s slow on the right side. Go get ’em, Rocky. The battered boxer steps back to the center of the ring rested and informed, ready to fight another round.

Tell someone to apostatize or die, and they’ll likely choose life. Some may walk away from their belief in self-preservation; others learn to be more secretive about what they know in their hearts to be true. The ones who martyr themselves, who are going to die for what they believe in, are the tragedies. It is always hard to find someone who will stick to their guns for the right reasons.

Intelligence officials from any office are suspect of the information they obtain through torture. Most people will do anything to get out of an uncomfortable situation. They will tell you anything you want to hear, no matter if it is true or not. False information obtained from the 9/11 suspects swayed the Bush administration to invade Iraq, committing the country to an endless war. A decision made on bad information that continues to put millions of lives at risk every day.

After the atomic bombs destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese military tortured Marcus McDilda — a captured pilot — for information about future bombings. McDilda told his captors the U.S. had at least a hundred more atomic bombs on the way. His confession might have swayed Japan’s decision to surrender.

The thing is, McDilda had no idea about the bombings, or what an atomic bomb was, or anything to do with the Manhattan Project or nuclear energy. He likely just wanted the torture to end. As a result, Japan made decisions based on bad information that may have saved the lives of millions.

Torture is peak ultimatum. It says, “give us what we want, or else.” Consider your relationship with a significant other, and what an ultimatum might bring to the table. To say, “If I don’t get X, then I’m going to leave.” Regardless if you get X, a resentment forms. Stay or go, both partners will always question the quality of the relationship. You may think you were assertive and standing up for what you needed in the relationship, but an ultimatum is not a request.

It’s impossible to present love, acceptance, and demands on the same menu.

Approaching someone with “you are wrong, and this is right,” is the common ultimatum. It starts the same way: “Well, actually,” and only gets worse from there. No one wants to admit they are wrong, and few are willing to fight their position with a total stranger — everything they say falls on deaf ears in a digital debate.

They aren’t wrong, just mistaken. Mistakes can be corrected and adjusted. They aren’t wrong, just misunderstood. The trick is to avoid using the words “wrong” and “mistaken.”

Think this or else will get you or else. Ultimatums create an impossible situation that forces most people to fold and do whatever they can to keep their nose intact and so they can fight another day.

What Advertisers Know

People will do anything to resolve an uncomfortable situation, which is why advertising works so well. An effective ad says — you have this problem, we have this solution. If the product fixes their pain, then the customer is yours for life.

Sometimes you have to frame the problem to be or more urgent than it is. You don’t just have a zit, you were stood up on a date. You don’t just have coffee-stained teeth; you have an embarrassing smile.

Advertising for NPOs and charities work a little differently. They have to highlight how huge the problem is, but then make the solution very tangible. How do you get a suburban mom of three who drives an SUV to care about something like the plight of polar bears? Don’t they have enough to worry about?

So the charity fundraising playbook starts to look something like:

  1. Big problem
  2. Simple Solution
  3. Reason to act
  4. Redemption

How do you get suburban moms to engage with the polar bear cause? The World Wildlife Fund doesn’t help polar bears directly. Their goal is to raise money and support for the causes that will aid the preservation of animal species. Polar bear cubs happen to be cute, and the plight of polar bears gives us the worst kind of pain: shame from her children.

Reason to act: shame.

Your carbon emissions are destroying the ice-floes polar bears need to survive. Donate today, and we will send you a bumper sticker for your car so you can show others how much work you are doing to fix a problem your SUV likely contributed to. Redemption.

In short: you caused a problem, but here is a chance for you to fix it and look so damn handsome while you do it.

And, best of all, your donation is tax deductible. How can you not call this a win?

Character is what people do when no one is looking. What do you do when there is no personal and immediate consequence? Even when no one is looking, people need a reason to care about something larger than themselves. Sometimes it is a bumper sticker or a tote bag or a placated child. Other times it is the chance to sleep soundly because you can live with yourself.

You can’t sell good character, but you can give someone the tools to get there.

Did Anyone Ever Tell You How Talented You Are?

The laundry machine in my apartment building was broken, so I brought a book along while I waited for my dryer to finish at the nearby laundromat. A soldier from the recruiting office next door walked through and approached me about what I was reading — I don’t remember what it was, maybe Voltaire? He said, “A smart guy like you could do your country a lot of good.” I took his brochure, knowing he would try to find me here next week to make another pitch to enlist.

My building fixed the washing machine by then.

It was the only interaction I’ve had with a recruiter. He was just doing his job: finding qualified people and convincing them to enlist. What made it memorable is how well he did it. He could have seen me doing laundry on a Wednesday afternoon, assumed I had no job, and tried to sell me a better life with the Army. Instead, he pushed on something most people are proud of: their ability to think for themselves. Intelligence. A smart guy like you…

Political campaigns rely on supporters giving their time, money, and energy to a candidate’s cause. A lousy candidate looks at a crowd of people and wonders how much money they can milk from them. A better leader looks at the same crowd and wonders how many donations the group can get from friends and family on their behalf. A great leader finds ways to empower supporters by matching individual talents with the cause.

Empowered supporters grow a cause exponentially and independently. This might be the artist who paints a two-story mural of the candidate on the side of a building in a politically strategic neighborhood. Or it might be a menacing mob who organized because they just had to do something in the name of…something.

Oh, right, Andrew Garfield finally finds Liam Neeson well past the half-way point of the movie (it’s a long movie, total sleeper). Giving you as few spoilers as possible: Liam apostatizes to end his torture, and then spends the next fifteen years with the heart of a Christian in a hostile land. Free from his duties as a missionary, he spends his time reflecting at a Zen temple to independently discover why his faith could never take root in Japan. He never explicitly states that he has lost his faith, but understands why his efforts are futile. Liam even goes so far as to sway Garfield — his own student — to also apostatize while he still has his head attached. The Japanese sheriffs finally got what they wanted — would they have turned him sooner if their methods had been something other than apostatize or die?

Soldiers who are conscripted knows what happens when they pull the trigger, but they don’t always understand why they have to pull it. Without the why, there will always be doubt. On the other hand, soldiers who are effectively recruited have little doubt about what they do or why they do it. I’d go so far as to say many of them believe their contributions are essential to the greater cause, they are proud to serve.

Pride is the difference between someone feeling like they have to do something, and those who want to do something. Pride is not always a sin.

Not Every Bridge Should Burn

Some deals don’t close. Some recruits don’t sign. It happens. Not everyone can sway, so leave on a high note. A salesman knows just because they don’t buy today doesn’t mean they might not buy eventually. He also knows leads talk to leads, so it’s in his best interest to keep non-customers just as satisfied as those who have purchased. It’s hard to come back from “that sales guy was an asshole, don’t talk to him.”

Sales are about chasing down leads and winning them to your way of thinking. It is also being open to leads from the past who have finally seen the light, so they have a place to fulfill their need.

Influence is letting people feel like they have made the right (your) choice. Going from what I think is right to what you think is right means admitting some part of me was wrong — this is a very hard thing to do. The shift often happens in isolation and on their own terms. It’s rarely the cinematic moment of “Well, are you with us or not?” as the tribes gather for battle.

Most people would rather stay in the wrong if only to preserve their pride. Which is why people need room to be wrong. Influence is not only getting people on board with your way of thinking but effectively uncoupling them with what they currently believe. Your audience needs to have the room to be wrong, they need the space to recover their pride.

You’re not wrong, you were just mistaken!

But it’s ok. You’re here now. Everything will be fine.

Been writing for years, now I’m helping others do the same. #copywriting #content #email Never miss an update:

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