I call this mistake “Not keeping your eye on the goal.”
It means not being 100% clear on what your goal is.
So, what is your goal?
If your goal is to say what you think — and then feel good about having said it — that’s not going to benefit anyone. Not you, and not anyone else.
That’s like the people who just say “You’re an idiot.” No one is benefited by that.
It it changing the person’s mind?
If the goal is to change the other person’s mind, then guess what? You need to prepare for disappointment.
Don’t become attached to an outcome that is unrealistic. Most people that take the time to disagree with you publicly are not humble enough to be told anything.
That’s just a fact.
People who like arguing are not humble people, statistically. So changing someone’s mind and getting them to publicly admit it is simply an unrealistic goal. You need a goal that is realistic.
A better goal
The goal needs to be to move the needle forward for someone:
To help your listener or onlookers move one step closer to knowing how to think in principle about the issue at hand. Or at least to help people know that you’re someone worth paying attention to.
Think about how you are positioning yourself.
If it helps, imagine someone you know who is a professional and has a good sense of self-confidence. How would they respond? What kind of response would you like to see from them? That’s the kind of response you should give.
If you don’t already know, my wife is fierce. And quite a bit sharper than I am when it comes to the art of public relations. Consider these maxims she taught me — what I call “Sasha’s Principles of Public Persuasion.”
As you read through these, see if you can find a common theme. There will be a quiz at the end.
Sasha’s First Principle of Public Persuasion:
If the other person has any chance of possessing the perceived moral high ground with onlookers, then show you are willing to listen and always ask for their reasons. If they don’t have the perceived moral high ground with onlookers, do the opposite.
So if I’m talking to someone and they make a racist comment, I’m not going to dignify that. I will tell them what I think of that idea, and then end the conversation.
But if I’m talking to someone who advocates socialized medicine, then many other onlookers are likely to side with that. So I can’t just be dismissive. I have to show that I’m willing to hear their arguments.
Because if I do that, then that builds my credibility with my audience. (Whereas patiently listening to a racist spout bigotry would harm my credibility with my audience.)
Sasha’s Second Principle of Public Persuasion:
If you find someone being dishonest, find a way to point out how they are mistaken while speaking “as if” you are supposing the best about them. The more pleasant and charitable you can sound, the harder time they will have in responding.
It almost never pays to directly tell someone they are being dishonest. It’s not going to help them, because they will just get defensive.
And it’s not going to help other people, because often other people enter the discussion in the middle, and they don’t know what you know, and they can’t judge if your accusation is true.
So don’t make that kind of accusation. You have to keep your onlookers in mind and not assume they follow your line of thought.
If you continue speaking “as if” you suppose the best about someone who you suspect of dishonesty, then you allow them to dig themselves into a deeper hole.
Sasha’s Third Principle of Public Persuasion:
Never show frustration — It’s not attractive to onlookers. It’s their opinion that matters more in these situations.
So, say that someone is simply not listening. They aren’t acknowledging the points you’ve made. They shift from one topic to the next in order to evade your argument. Do you allow yourself to become exasperated? To complain?
That’s a bad look.
Instead, casually point them back to the topic at hand, in a way that sounds sweet as honey.
See what Sasha achieves in all of these principles? Have you figured out the common theme? All three of the principles focus on one clear goal: building credibility with onlookers.
Who cares if you convince the person who is arguing with you?
Make it your goal to position yourself as someone who has a cool head and can be reasoned with — someone that has confidence in the reasons for what he believes, and yet is respectful and open to listening to many opposing views.
In other words, you are engaging in discussion because you have a long-term goal.
Your vision is that such discussions over time will serve both to bring the truth to light and to position you as someone who has helpful things to say.
Keep your eye on that goal. Be 100% clear.
“Always be positioning yourself.” That’s Sasha’s theme.
That’s the best way to assure that you’ll have the ability to sustain your influence with others over time, for the sake of the truth you intend to share.