If you are seeking to persuade someone with whom you disagree, make certain you don’t insult them. Seems obvious, but so often ignored.
It is a lesson that Lyndon Johnson – the Master Persuader himself – applied his entire adult life.
As historian Jon Meacham writes in The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Johnson had been invited to speak at his presidential library at the University of Texas in Austin. The night before he had been very ill, battling as he did with chronic heart disease. Lady Bird Johnson urged him not to make the trip, and so too did his doctors. Worse, bad weather had set in with snow and ice covering the roads from his home in Johnson City to Austin. Johnson, of course, would not be dissuaded and on the way even took the wheel of the car from his driver who in Johnson’s opinion was not driving quickly enough.
Johnson gave an eloquent speech, the last of his life and he even closed with the words he had closed his presidential address to Congress on Civil Rights in 1964 “We shall overcome.” What came next is the persuasion part. Some hecklers in the audience called for President Nixon to be denounced by the committee. Johnson strode to the dais once again.
“Let’s try to get our folks reasoning together,” Johnson said. “And you don’t need to start off by saying [Nixon’s] terrible because he doesn’t think he is terrible. Start talking about how you believe that he wants to do what’s right and how you believe this is right, and you’ll be surprised how many who want to do what’s right will try to help you.”
Five weeks later in January 1973, Johnson died.
Rather than criticize the man, it’s better to speak about what you can do together. It was advice Johnson had applied to mentors such as Sam Rayburn and Richard Russell as well as adversaries and allies alike. The Johnson Treatment often had the coating of honey before the dousing of vinegar, if necessary.
Such is good advice, especially now when public discourse is resonates more with defamation than dignity. Reality says that you seldom, if ever, persuade people by belittling them. Better to find common ground.
Experts who work in negotiations find solutions by following these steps.
One, affirm the person’s integrity. This may require biting your tongue. When you disagree with an individual, it’s easy to employ animus. Bad move. Keep the discussion on an even keel. Look at the argument, not the individual. Each side can advocate for their ideas but not impugn the motives of the other.
Two, find common ground. Often people who disagree may share a single idea – make things better. Their approach, however, is oppositional. One may want to spend; the other may want to save. Look for the reasoning behind the strategy. Therein may lie the common purpose, e.g., ensure the future of the organization.
Three, look for one solution. Once you understand each other, look for win-win opportunities. For the saver, identify things that could be eliminated. For the spender, find items that require investment. Split the difference, if need be. Most important, keep talking.
Then do a little dreaming. This technique was a specialty of Johnson. As Meacham writes, when President Johnson met with Governor George Wallace of Alabama in the White House in 1965 he asked him how he wanted to be remembered. He noted that Wallace had begun his career as a “liberal” working for the common man. Johnson challenged Wallace to think about the future, not 1968 but 1988. Would he be recalled as a man of hate or a man who sought to make things better for all men?
The art of persuasion is founded on the understanding that good ideas can become better ones if you are willing to work with people with whom you initially disagree.