Another article I wrote for Persuasion 101, this one from 2003:
Sometimes you’ll be faced with the task of persuading someone who is being, shall we say, unreasonable. Their emotions have gotten the best of them, perhaps, or maybe they just don’t like what you represent to them for whatever reason. I know what it’s like to be there. I work in a hospital and spend most of my “persuasion time” in either the locked Psychiatric Unit or the Emergency Department. You don’t get more “unreasonable” than some of the patients I’ve seen.
I’m a lazy persuader. I tend to realize that most of what people know about communicating is intuitive and natural, so I have learned to pay attention to my own other-than-conscious signals and trust them. Your unconscious can keep track of much more information than you think.
The psych nurses called me to help them with a man who was very angry with them for reasons that only he knew. When I got there, he was sitting (which is a good thing, generally speaking, for an angry person to be doing when you’re in front of them) and ranting to himself. The charge nurse stood aside and waited for me to say some magic words. (She’d seen me work before.) I listened for a bit and then opened my mouth to say something I thought was particularly persuasive, and I received a little nudge from the back of my mind. It went something like this here:
SHUT UP AND LISTEN!
So I did.
I listened for a little while longer, got some more information, thought to myself, OK, it’s time to talk now, opened my mouth to say something I thought would be even more persuasive than the first thing, and there was that, um, still, calm, gentle voice again:
SHUT UP AND LISTEN!!
OK, OK, so I shut up and listened some more while he ranted. Then he gave me what I thought was a truly important bit of information, and I was glad I had paid attention to my unconscious urgings to be quiet. With that key information, I again went to open my mouth to say something powerfully persuasive, and you’ll never guess…
SHUT UP AND LISTEN!!!
Now, I consider myself an intelligent fellow, and I can take a subtle hint. So I shut up for good. I sat and listened, just as I had before, making the little facial expressions and nods and grunts that demonstrated I was honestly listening to what he had to say. And within a minute or so he calmed down. And then he realized he was out of line.
The truth is, that’s all he needed. Someone to hear him out, to take in what he was saying without trying to convince him he was mistaken. The more he talked, them more I listened, the more he talked himself out of what he was saying. And I didn’t have to say a thing.
Because, you see, inside every “unreasonable” person, there’s a calm and peaceful person who’d rather be in charge.
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