How to Listen Persuasively

The next time you’re trying to convince your spouse, child, friend, coworker or political opponent to understand your perspective about something, set your argument aside and try a different research-supported strategy:

  1. Ask questions
  2. Listen
  3. Invite an exchange of stories

We tend to approach disagreements with facts and arguments that support our own perspective, but doing this is like pulling on one end of a tug-of-war rope. The person we’re hoping to persuade will probably pull against us and focus on defending their own opinion. To defuse the situation, try dropping the rope. Open the discussion by asking questions, and genuinely listen to the other person’s perspective. Your willingness to listen will bring the conversation to an exploration rather than a debate. The goal is to guide the person to their own inner dilemma and help them find a path in your direction while keeping their self-concept and personal values intact. Ask them to share their story, then share your perspective with a personal story.

For example, your teenager has been violating the curfew you’ve set. Rather than laying down the law, which will just escalate the power struggle, try listening to their experience. You will likely learn about the social pressures they’re facing if your curfew is earlier or more strictly enforced than their peers’. Repeat back to them what you’re hearing so they know you’re listening. You could also ask them if they experience any downsides from staying out late. They might acknowledge that they are overtired the next day and have a harder time doing their schoolwork.

If your teen shares anything that supports your view, resist the temptation to pounce. Let them sit in their own dilemma—in this example, the conflict between fitting in with peers (which will almost always win for teens) and their desire to succeed in school. Listen for their emotions, values and stories. Once you’ve drawn them out and the conversation feels emotionally safe, share your perspective in story form. For example, if your concern is safety for your teen as an overtired driver, you might share the story of your friend’s child who was injured in a crash after dozing off at the wheel. Once you’ve put the conflicting values on the table—in this scenario peer connection, academic success and safety—you will both be in a better position to work together to resolve the conflict.

When it’s time to talk, storytelling is the most compelling way to share new information. Not only does this approach work well in family relationships, it’s also been demonstrated to bridge contentious political divides. So set aside your argument and become more persuasive by asking questions, listening and sharing stories.

Photo Credit: Nick Fewings

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