Especially in today’s political climate, persuasion is more top-of-mind — yet frustrating — than ever. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been part of a couple quarrels that didn’t end well. In each of them, I could feel the blood rushing to my face over someone’s seeming inability to see my side. How could they? It was hard enough coming from strangers or the media. But from friends, family, a significant other? I so wanted to believe they shared my core values, and therefore, my ideas. Their rejection of my belief seemed a rejection of me.
These arguments made me especially disappointed in myself, because as the founder of LIFE Intelligence, I felt like there ought to be a more intelligent way to handle these conversations. Sure, I’d taken negotiations class at Harvard Business School. And ironically, I’d even won a classroom vote for most persuasive. [*cringe*] But when it came to things I actually cared about morally — not whether you’ll buy something for $20 or $10 — but ideas that get at fundamental beliefs about humanity — it was much harder to find a Zone Of Possible Agreement. So, I decided to take a practical and theoretical look at how persuasion works.
Carl Hovland and the Process of Persuasion
We entrepreneurs and investors love a good process, right? Well it turns out, there’s a process to persuasion as well. During WWII, Psychologist Carl Hovland carried out a number of studies at Yale, initially for the U.S. Army to determine the efficacy of propaganda films during the war. (It’s mind-blowing to imagine that a current-day equivalent might be Trump’s digital marketing team trying to determine which posts get more likes on Facebook).
The original study brought up what is still so relevant today: “Charismatic leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt, and Churchill had demonstrated how entire societies could be powerfully manipulated through skillful persuasion” (Larson, 1992: 81).
Hovland’s team sought to determine the process of persuasion. What factors needed to be in place for rhetoric to be effective? It came down to three pieces: (1) the source or communicator, (2) the message itself, and (3) the receiver and context. While these seem obvious, let’s dive deeper into the first. Perhaps we’ll table the second and third for a series.
What makes a source credible?
Not surprisingly, we tend to find people credible when they have both expertise and trustworthiness. I get this question a lot in my business: you have an MBA and spent your career in finance. What are you doing writing a digital health program? You’re going to need some psychiatrists on your board.
These comments aren’t wrong! If you’re a psychiatrist, dm me! However, the thing they do get wrong is the understanding of what I’m pitching as my expertise. Everything that goes into LIFE Intelligence is backed by research — hundreds of in-app cited studies from luminaries in the field. They are the ones you should believe. They are the ones with real credibility for the information. No, my expertise is a much lowlier effort. I’m just a pretty good analyzer, aggregator, and messenger.
At a hedge fund I was digging, discovering, and interpreting boatloads of information to extract interesting insights that the rest of the market might miss. I wasn’t coming up with the information on my own — it’s all publicly available. But I was screening it, modeling it, and getting it to make sense, something most people don’t have the time or training to do.
In the same way, decades of psychology research are sitting on Google Scholar for the taking. The problem is, almost none of it gets to you, the readers who can most benefit. Do you really want to scour hundreds of articles to read about Carl Hovland? My guess is, no. So, drawing on my investing experience, my job now is to find, digest, and offer conclusions in a way that brings you clear revelations, backed by science. That’s my expertise.
Why does this matter? This seemingly-obvious finding that credibility involves 1) expertise and 2) trustworthiness applies to our relationships and why failing to persuade loved ones hurts so viscerally.
At a personal level, what is expertise? Expertise comes down to empathy and understanding for the other person’s point of view. (“I’m knowledgeable about how you think; I have experience in how you feel.”) At a personal level, what is trustworthiness? Trust comes down to believing that someone has your best interest at heart, one of the most important qualities in a relationship (Clark & Lemay, 2010). So when we have a hard time persuading a loved one to take our view, it reflects like a lack of empathy and loss of trust. For example, if my boyfriend can’t understand how I feel about race/gender, can I trust him to really be on my side? If he hasn’t developed empathy toward my situation, are we really as close as I thought we were?
Have Empathy for how Hard It is to Have Empathy
Let’s start with empathy. Empathy is actually a very difficult process.
As we teach in LIFE’s Mission 8 on communication skills, empathy includes both emotional and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy means being (1) self-aware of our own feelings (2) feeling someone else’s feelings (3) distinguishing between the two and (4) feeling sympathy for the other person. Cognitive empathy means (1) taking someone else’s perspective (2) separating yours from theirs and (3) wanting to help. These are a lot of steps, and require great emotional regulation skills, especially in stressful situations! (Decety and Jackson 2004) As such, empathy often breaks down when we are stressed or burned out. For a whole post on how stress and burnout limits our ability to empathize, see How Emotional Intimacy Cures Stress.
Remember my explanation for what I *think* is my expertise: finding the nugget in a bunch of noise? Well, you can imagine that empathy works the same way. It’s hard to digest! You have feelings, thoughts, news articles, hidden childhood experiences. There is a lot to unpack. And even though the information is out there, this person may not have taken the time, or had the training, to really get it. Or to really get you. It takes time to scour the universe and learn.
At an investment fund, I was highly motivated to learn, and I could still spend weeks researching one stock. I literally quit my job to research LIFE’s content all day, every day, for months, and it continues to be honed! This isn’t a quick process. Untrained investors often fail to learn enough, and make ill-informed decisions all the time. What about uninformed friends or loved ones? We rarely spend the same level of scrutiny professionals spend on stock picks to our beliefs, emotions, relationships, arguments. And we even more rarely do so for the other side.
Great. So now that we have a little empathy for the other person’s lack of empathy, what next? When it comes to moral or political issues, it can be easy to think: Why should I have to explain this? It isn’t my job to educate you! Educate yourself! Or worse, in relationships, it breeds contempt. If you can’t get this through your thick skull…
This may be controversial, but I have come to the sad acknowledgement that the burden may be on the persuader. In marketing, there’s the idea of educating the customer. In explaining LIFE, I see firsthand how frustrating that is. Especially when creating a new category, education is a huge hill to climb. I can’t help but feel perturbed when someone likens this app to yet another of something. But instead of getting angry, I realize that I have the burden of proof. If people can’t see how LIFE is differentiated, that’s my fault.
Assuming you’re having trouble persuading someone, they’re likely also an “unmotivated buyer.” Even worse: Maybe they’re a fiercely loyal customer of a competitor. The burden of proof is so high, that quite frankly you may never get there. It’s a harsh reality for LIFE, too. And for an early stage startup, sometimes I do just have to move on and say, thank you, next. But other times, I have to think: could I be explaining this better? The point is, as temped as you may be to hurl: how could you not get this? Go read the book yourself! Education is a long slog, a necessary process, and a responsibility that tends to fall on those outside the status quo.
Finally, believing that your partner has your best interest at heart is one of the most important qualities in a relationship (Clark & Lemay, 2010).
In the LIFE Intelligence app, we provide weekly prompts to deepen your relationship. We're glad to have been ranked as one of the best relationship apps for couples. Vulnerability precedes trust. If you weren’t vulnerable in any way, that wouldn’t be trust — it would be certainty! So, part of restoring trust with your partner is allowing them to tell you why they think differently. Or, allowing someone to counter your ideas. We tend to spring defenses when it comes to vulnerability. We may feel attacked and grow ever more resolute in our stance. But if you’re able to take it in stride, that might restore some balance of trust with the other party.
In fact, studies show that when an argument is being refuted, a two-sided argument, where you can argue both for and against, is effective. You can increase your credibility just by arguing against your own self-interest, taking vulnerability to another level. What does this look like taken to extremes? Some hedge funds get this level of “radical candor” by assigning teams to argue both the long and short thesis for a stock pick. By arguing against yourself, you can show the other person you’ve really tried to see their side. The best online couples counseling apps know that there are two sides to every story, and getting couples to see both sides is key. Download free for iOS or Android.
If you think that this article skewed the burden heavily to the persuader, that’s because we’ve focused on only the first step of Havland’s process: the source. Don’t worry: it takes two to be in any relationship, and I have choice words for the receiver, too. Perhaps to be continued next time.
For some related research, here's a related post on the Science of Persuasion.