The Counter Punch: A Persuasion Tactic

How to destroy competition and influence people

Over the years I’ve faced a lot of adversarial situations. Whether it’s dealing with an unfair police officer, or debating the value of an issue with a stubborn prospect, I enjoy the intellectual challenge and rush of adrenaline that comes with a high-stakes debate. We all do. But not all adversarial situations are created the same. Sometimes what started out as a lively argument degrades into genuinely hostile exchange — and that’s a different game altogether. And must be handled differently. Nobody likes being threatened, cheated, or slandered.

In sales and legal industries, for example, it’s common for rivals to slander each other’s reputations in order to siphon away prospective friends or acquaintances. This is neither fair nor honorable. Nor does it allow room for lively debate. In that type of situation you must either defend yourself absolutely or lose all credibility. Of course the allegations weren’t true. And in such situations it was impossible to win the deal until I had made it abundantly clear just how degenerate our lying competitors really were.

As business people, neighbors, and citizens we believe that when we’re competing with each other, there’s a thin line of honor that runs through all human souls. We believe we’ll be treated fairly by other people just because. But there isn’t. And we won’t. When a situation devolves into an outright attack, it’s an upsetting thing and we never get used to it. But it must also be dealt with immediately and definitively. In other words, it must be dealt with in a way that unequivocally salvages your reputation and absolutely destroys the reputation of your slanderer. How can you do this?

Fortunately, as Dr. Robert Cialdini notes in his book Pre-Suasion, “in contests of persuasion, counter-arguments are typically more powerful than arguments.” In other words, the mere fact that you’re responding to an attack gives you the upper-hand over your rival.

A significantly more important finding by Cialdini is this: the most powerful counter-claims don’t just refute a rival’s claim by showing it to be mistaken or misdirected. Instead, “they show the rival communicator to be an untrustworthy source of information generally.” In other words, when you’re in the gutter arguing against someone who isn’t playing fair, your best option is to show that he or she is a liar. Not only on this occasion, but fundamentally. This will win your current battle and future battles with that opponent.

This is thanks to another powerful phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias maintains that we as humans tend to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions. The corollary of which is: if you believe the attacker is a liar, your mind will instinctively search for instances that confirm that belief and will often ignore ones that don’t.

So, what are the takeaways for you as future master of the universe? Number one: if you’re in an intellectual or professional street fight, try to be perceived as the respondent — not the aggressor. Number two: don’t waste your time trying to paint your rival as incompetent, mistaken, petty, or foolish. If you want maximum impact, paint them as a dyed-in-the-wool pants-on-fire liar.

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