The best debaters and negotiators, those who actually get to the outcome they desire, do something that at first seems counterproductive; they look for all the areas where they agree with the other side.
In Think Again
, author Adam Grant explains that persuading someone to your way of thinking is far more effective when approached like a dance being choreographed in real time, and much less like a war with entrenched battle plans. “In a war, our goal is to gain ground rather than lose it, so we’re often afraid to surrender a few battles,” he writes. “In a negotiation, agreeing with someone else’s argument is disarming.” More agreeing, more questions and fewer facts actually win the day.
When we attempt to persuade someone to our way of thinking, we often pick up a metaphorical hammer. We try to pound new ways of thinking into them by overloading them with facts, demonstrating greater passion, talking more loudly or even bullying. The better tool might be a crowbar; something that helps us (or them really) pry open their mind just enough to let new ideas creep in. Because persuading someone to adopt a new opinion requires that they first rethink their own.
An adversarial stance where you just try to prove how wrong someone is has a good chance of failing because it tends to prompt one of several predictable responses. Some people dig in with a defensive wall to shield themselves from anything you have to say. Others go on offense and focus their energy on a counter attack. Another option, especially in the workplace where there might be a significant power differential, is simply playing politics. The person tells you what you want to hear even though they haven’t changed their thinking and are unlikely to put their full support behind your idea.
What if, instead of focusing on the differences between both sides, you started with all the ways they connect and all the points on which you actually agree?
How star debaters do it
In Think Again
, Grant shares the story of a debating expert who, by age 31, had won more than three dozen international debate tournaments and likely held the world record. He approaches a debate as a negotiation, or even a dance where you and your partner are figuring out the steps as you go.
In a foundational study on negotiation, sales consultant, researcher and author of numerous books including SPIN Selling
and Rethinking the Sales Force
, Neil Rackham, examined what expert negotiators do differently from less successful negotiators. He recorded both groups conducting labor and contract negotiations. Several key differences emerged.
- Seeking common ground. Before anyone said a word, the experts were already behaving differently. The average negotiators focused on their own arguments and prepped as if going into battle. The experts devoted more than a third of their planning to how they might find common ground.
- Relying on just (a few) facts. Next, as the negotiations got under way, the average performers kept piling on facts and justifications in a deluge of information overload. The experts presented only a few critical points that were rock solid. It turns out that presenting numerous arguments usually means you’ve included some weaker ones. That’s where the other person focuses and your whole case is weakened by one shaky component. Using too many arguments also provides less opportunity to fully develop your strongest points.
- Getting curious. The average negotiators almost immediately shot down their opponents’ ideas and proposals without really even considering them. They simply doubled down on their own positions. Of course, that prompted the other side to do the same. Neither side could risk opening up to anything new. The more skilled negotiators instead relied on curiosity and asked a lot of follow-up questions. Even a question such as, “So you don’t see any merit in this proposal at all?” provided an opportunity for the other person to consider the information in their own way and come to their own conclusions rather than feeling backed into a corner.
- Asking more questions. Questions were like a super power among the top negotiators. Of every five comments the experts made, at least one ended in a question mark, Grant reports. “Recent experiments show that having even one negotiator who brings a scientist’s level of humility and curiosity improves outcomes for both parties, because she will search for more information and discover ways to make both sides better off,” he writes. “She isn’t telling her counterparts what to think. She’s asking them to dance.”
Persuading someone to think again or think anew is more successful when you open your own mind first. “We can demonstrate openness by acknowledging where we agree with our critics and even what we’ve learned from them,” Grant says. “Then, when we ask what views they might be willing to revise, we’re not hypocrites.”