Respectful Persuasion Is a Relay Race, Not a Solo Sprint – 3 Keys to Putting It in Practice

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Yves here. I’m not sure what to make of this article. It’s not so much that it seems overtly wrong but wrong by virtue of a lot of omission, particularly of the elephant in the room: What do you mean by “persuasion”?

In the US, what is often mischaracterized persuasion are efforts to change views. The issue is how the interlocutor handles resistance. With our rise in income stratification, there’s been an increase in using domination rather than reasoning, which amounts to coercion to get people to accede or shut up, rather than affecting their existing beliefs. A widespread tactic is invocation of authority: pretending to be an expert or citing one, whether or not they actually are well informed in the topic at hand or have a big bias.

For instance, I was surprised that the recommendations below didn’t start by calling for listening to what the other person had to say, as in not just giving them the opportunity to make their case but also giving it bona fide consideration, in particular framing your argument to acknowledge the issues they voice (even better if you show engagement by playing key phrases or ideas).

Another key part is being polite without being subservient. Beautiful manners are actually a subtle form of domination. They show a superb mastery of the most elite forms of behavior (like knowing the proper forms of address to various levels of government officials) and being so at ease with it that it’s second nature. The other way that superb manners are manipulative is that old-school politeness makes a big point of putting the other person at ease: getting their coat, opening doors, fussing over them, bantering to as to smooth over the potential awkwardness of initial meetings.

I am very lacking in that category. I am excitable and speak quickly and thus often interrupt people by mistaking their pauses as a conclusion and wind up stepping on them conversationally, which is just plain rude. I also operate on the assumption that my needs won’t be met, so when I detect signs of being ignored when I need something to happen (like being in a wheelchair in eyeshot of airline gate personnel when I should be preboarded and if I’m not, I’ll have to do a lot of standing during the boarding process which makes my knee swell up), I get aggressive very quickly (I get loud). Being habituated to being aggressive in new situations (travel) in my case predisposes me towards undue vigilance generally.1

So even with being aware of deficiencies in this area, articles like this don’t give me helpful ideas.

Having said that, one factor may be a widespread absence of modeling in the Anglosphere. Reader hk yesterday noted, on a mention by reader irrational of an interview of former Austrian foreign minister Katrin Kneissl:

The most memorable thing she mentioned was that the keys to successful diplomacy are good manners, attentiveness, and empathy. Something sorely lacking in modern day Western elites.

A missing key to the piece below is that in many case, diplomacy is a precondition to effective communication. And anyone who has ever read a book on negotiations has picked up rule one: find areas of agreement, even if small, to build trust and momentum.

By Colin Marshall, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Washington. Originally published at The Conversation

The 2024 presidential election is still a year and a half away, but it can feel much closer: President Joe Biden has made his reelection bid official, presumed candidates are giving out-of-state speeches, pundits are already weighing in on nomination hopefuls, and social media is, as ever, a mess of people trying to persuade strangers to back their favorite. All for good reason: Even a little political persuasion in the next year could change the course of history.

I’m a philosopher who studies and teaches the ethics of persuasion. My students are eager to find ways to persuade their friends, family and neighbors about political issues such as climate change and abortion. Moreover, many of them want to persuade with integrity: They want to engage the people they’re talking with respectfully, instead of using the manipulative tricks they regularly see in politics and marketing. But what is respectful persuasion, and what distinguishes it from disrespectful manipulation?

There’s no simple formula for respectful persuasion. However, some philosophers see crucial hints in the work of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose theory of respect has guided many ethicists and policymakers for the past two centuries.

Drawing on Kant’s work, and that of other philosophers inspired by him, I think we can isolate three key components of respectful persuasion. This isn’t just an academic exercise. My students and I have found that these factors increase the chances of deep, meaningful conversation.

1. Giving Reasons

Broadly speaking, reasons are considerations that rationally support some belief or action, including both empirical evidence and abstract arguments. For example, astronauts’ pictures of a round Earth rationally support the belief that the Earth is round. When we sincerely give someone reasons, we show respect for their rationality: their ability to recognize good reasons.

By contrast, a hallmark of manipulation is bypassing rationality, such as repeatedly exposing people to false statements to make them appear true – something that psychologists call the “illusory truth effect.”

Manipulation can be effective, but psychologists have found that persuasion using reasons is more durable than nonrational persuasion such as repetition-based tricks. For example, someone who comes to believe in climate change based on the scientific evidence probably will not be as easily swayed later on by repeated exposure to climate skepticism. The rational support that good reasons provide for a belief can make that belief more stable.

2. Being Open to Learning

Giving reasons is not difficult by itself. The second component of respectful persuasion, however, is much more challenging: being open to receiving the other side’s reasons – a form of intellectual humility. This is especially hard for persuaders, since they have to give up some of the time they would have used to make their case.

Kant expressed this core idea nicely. Even someone encountering a person whose opinion seems obviously wrong, Kant wrote, has “a duty … to suppose that his judgment must yet contain some truth and to seek this out.” This isn’t merely a suggestion to listen to people one wants to persuade. Instead, respect demands actively seeking out truth in what the other person says.

In fact, some studies suggest that intellectual humility makes people better able to evaluate the strength of arguments. This means that intellectually humble people may be more likely to recognize that a persuader’s arguments are actually better than their own, and have to reconsider their views – which can pose a real risk to someone’s self-esteem.

But being open to other people’s reasons also increases the chance of their being open to yours – a form of reciprocity in which you take turns learning from each other. Decades of psychological research have shown that, especially in two-person exchanges, people value reciprocity in communication and see it as a way of treating each other fairly.

In other words, if you show openness to learning from someone else, rather than just lecturing, it may seem fair to them to be open to you too.

That is why faking this kind of respect can be a powerful manipulative tool. A psychologically savvy canvasser, for instance, can manipulate swing voters by pretending to be open to learning about their own opinions. But this carries its own risk, since people who discover they have been manipulated may resent it.

3. Live and Let Live

Kant’s central principle of respect is that one should “not degrade any other as a mere means” to one’s ends. This requires people to rein in their own self-love out of consideration for others. In popular culture, this might be summed up in the idea of “live and let live”: Other things being equal, we shouldn’t interfere in other people’s lives.

Overlooking this principle can make persuasion disrespectful in a variety of ways, even when the persuader has good intentions. The philosopher George Tsai argues that this happens in cases of unsolicited advice: Imagine, he writes, that while your date goes to the restroom, an eavesdropping stranger tells you that she thinks you could do better. Even if the stranger is right, it’s simply none of her business.

Another example of how interference can make persuasion disrespectful is that changing someone’s mind can harm their dignity and disrupt their connection to their community. For example, say that you persuade a relative who lives in a small ranching community to become vegan. That change might lead to their being ostracized by people they rely on.

Because persuasion can affect other people’s lives in many ways, this third component of respect is the most difficult to adhere to. Sometimes, people may be justified in interfering in other people’s lives, such as if lives are at stake or in particularly close relationships – but those are special circumstances.

One Conversation at a Time

In class, my students attempt to persuade one another four times, using a range of formats: five minutes vs. a whole week; in person vs. over Zoom. At the end, they score one another on effectiveness and respectfulness.

My students are smart, informed and passionate, and the class offers them a positive, carefully structured environment. Despite all that, they almost never succeed in persuading one another – at least not when it comes to politics.

Something interesting happens, though, when they let respect guide their conversations. Instead of launching into lectures, they start seeing each exchange as an opportunity to learn from each other – perhaps as an opportunity to leave their partner thinking about something in a new way, without fully persuading them.

If you approach our conversation as a chance to exchange ideas, without trying to change my mind, you may lay a cornerstone of trust. That, in turn, could make me more receptive to similar viewpoints in the future – even if I’m speaking with other people. Truly respectful political persuasion might best be seen as an extended team effort, not a one-time, one-person task.


1 And then there are times you have to stand up on your hind legs not to be railroaded. I hate being put in that position. For instance, on the afore-mentioned flight where I had to make temper-tantrum level noise to get the airline gate attendants to round up a wheelchair pusher that they were remiss in not having called for five or ten minutes earlier, I also had to make a stink to not have a biometric photo taken before boarding (in fairness, merely keeping my N95 on would have been a passive aggressive way to opt out, but after the wheelchair help fail, I was not in the mood for polite half measures). The US government has a biometric facial image of me in the form of my passport photo. I had already cleared TSA. The photo was not a precondition for boarding. I’m not about to participate in this nonsense, but you are made to be a bad guy if you don’t go along.

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  1. Bobby Gladd

    Why do humans “reason?“

    To WIN the argument. Should truth happen along the way, so much the better.

    Adrian Bardon has some nice riffs on this in his book “Th Truth About Denial.“

    1. Acacia

      The classical opposition was that aiming to win involved eristic, while aiming for the truth involved dialectic. Aristotle, however, proposed that rhetoric and dialectic were counterparts.

      Marshall makes a good case for the importance of respect in engagement with others.

      But it seems far too much to hope for “truly respectful political persuasion” from a venal character like Biden, let alone any of the other candidates who will get approved by the party machines.

      1. Bobby Gladd


        Do you wanna have some good (painful) eristic laughs?

        Check out that RamaSwamy guy.

  2. hk

    Thanks for the mention! To place the topic in context, Kneissl, Diesen, and Mercouris were talking about the manners and empathy in contrast to the credentials and “ability/knowledge/expertise” that the modern day elites seem obsessed with. The conversation made me think of several people (Power and McFaul being the first two that came to my mind immediately) who played major roles in US foreign policy lately, who were not merely rude and openly insulting and disdainful to foreign governments and were eager to flaunt their credentials (were they actual that “capable,” I don’t know.), which seems to fit Yves’ opening to this post even more closely.

  3. begob

    Empathy is a slippery fish that, at least for me, eludes useful definition. I keep this contrast in mind:
    A two-year-old sister comforts her stressed younger brother by bringing him her favourite toy: he’s not interested. 6 months later, when he is similarly distressed, she brings him his favourite toy: now he’s interested. From sympathy to empathy.

    1. Bobby Gladd

      It is often asserted (wrongly) that Donald Trump “has no empathy.”

      “Empathy“ is not a synonym for “sympathy.“

      Trump has extremely well-calibrated “cognitive empathy“ in the timeshare Closer sense. He can read people quickly and effectively to get over on them. The other two overlapping pieces of empathy are “affective“ and “somatic.“ Affective is closer to sympathy. There’s not an ounce of it within 100 miles of Donald Trump.

        1. LawnDart

          Most of the psychopaths and even many of the sociopaths that I used to work with/deal with on a regular basis definately had sense of empathy, to greater or lesser degrees: to empathise with the victim not only facilitates manipulation, but lays bare the potential for more refined, sadistic delights (if so inclined).

          Exhibit A: the shrinks who designed, implemented, and oversaw the torture facility at Guantánamo.

          1. Jeff

            How were they (the shrinks) persuaded to believe that what they were doing in gitmo was right, good or would save lives? Because you know that’s what happened…. They surely didn’t believe what they were doing was immoral.

  4. zagonostra

    I’m a philosopher who studies and teaches the ethics of persuasion. My students are eager to find ways to persuade their friends, family and neighbors about political issues such as climate change and abortion.

    Hmm, maybe he should curb that “eagerness” and teach the students the full trivium before jumping into rhetoric.

    “The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric”- by Sister Miriam Joseph

    Sister Miriam Joseph told her first audience that “the function of the trivium is the training of the mind for the study of matter and spirit, which constitute the sum of reality.

  5. timbers

    Maybe I’m just being old and out of touch, but just had a minor fender bender while driving the car. I feel the insurance companies are slightly changing word meanings to their benefit. For example, policeman said to each of us to go to this DMV website and fill out a report. Your insurance companies will retrieve it and decide who’s at fault. Shortly after I received mail from insurance co saying “Your claim has been received” etc. Later I called them and they said they did NOT get my DMV report and “your claim” referred to the other driver’s report. I spent several minutes before getting the person I was speaking with to eventually admit most people would interpret “your claim” means a claim you yourself filed. A week later, I contacted them again after sending a pic of my rear passenger side fender sporting a dent. This new person would not use the word “rear” because it was not in the center of the rear fender but to one side, and use only “a side hit” to describe what the picture showed. The obvious implication being a rear impact is much less likely my fault on face value than a side impact. The word games IMO make it harder to communicate and maybe harder to get insurance companies to payout.

  6. DJG, Reality Czar

    Yves Smith and hk: I also noted hk’s comment and quote. It got me thinking about the elaborate manners here in the Undisclosed Region. The denizens of the Chocolate City are famous for their manners–and the use of the formal “lei” in daily conversation–so much so that other Italians think of them as somewhat stiff.

    Manners provide a neutral ground for the exchange of information and for building trust. Unfortunately, in the Anglo-American world, good manners are often taken as a sign of weakness. Further, there are all too many carping blog posts and essays out there in the Anglo-American world about how good etiquette is just patriarchal oppression. One must be free to toss F-bombs~ever so righteously!

    As I sometimes harp on here, Anglo-American discourse also tends to be Baptist testifying and Methodist sermonizing, which makes “persuasion” come across like missionary work. So the style of persuasion has to be toned down–and I see no indication in U.S. society that it will be. It’s always salvation through faith alone, all the contrary evidence notwithstanding. Colin Marshall appeals to humility–but I’m not sure that’s it.

    Third, one has to practice. There have to be rules. Let’s contemplate how much effort it takes to keep the comments section here at Naked Capitalism orderly, civil, and spirited. One learns much here. But that also means quashing the tendency that the height of freedom is the freedom to shout down others (as we saw in how shabbily Plaskett, Wasserman-Schultz, and Garcia treated Taibbi, who, curiously, remains unpersuaded of the validity of their options).

    In the end, now that I, too, am a denizen of the Chocolate City, I have to admit that the elaborate manners here–people instinctually form lines and take turns–is a kind of relief. In that neutral space, people can then play. One listens for all of the witty remarks while standing in line.

    Yet egalitarianism is firmly established in Italian culture–one can have manners and have equals. It’s a start.

    1. hk

      Interesting observation about egalitarianism: American “diplomats” (and “moral crusaders” generally) lecture, bully, and sermonize because they don’t consider their audience equal of themselves–they consider themselves moral superiors entitled to force their morality upon their audiences. But this follows, practically by definition, from being moralizers: you are lecturing and sermonizing because you consider yourself to be morally superior in the first place.

      Moralizing mentality is fundamentally incompatible with diplomacy. This is the fatal flaw in the “exceptionalist” diplomacy. Unless America fundamentally changes (or goes back to the old insular mindset, where American diplomats did diplomat things and Americans back home didn’t care about foreign matters much), we can’t do diplomacy, period.

      1. irrational

        I have to agree with that – and not just because you complemented my comment ;-)
        This is exactly what I see in this strident insistence on “European values” by the famed Ursula. It is also what is making African nations turn around and tell us (at least the Europeans, but I think a couple of US envoys also got a good pasting lately) to stop being colonialist. What on Earth makes us think that we are more right than others and to judge others by that? From that belief comes an inability to see the position of another, because they are by definition inferior.

      2. Henry Moon Pie

        Is the claim to moral authority more than a cover for an assertion of power? Hasn’t it gotten so bad that when the Americans claim some moral reason for dropping more bombs that a lot of Americans just cynically laugh while the rest of the world shakes its head in disgust.

        Now domestically, when addressing the deplorables, the finger is always wagging. But again, that’s an assertion of power and authority. When your teacher or your grandmother wagged their finger at you as a child, they were not appealing to your reason. They were using their authority to close the discussion.

      1. DJG, Reality Czar

        bassmule: Ahh, yes, the U.S. Chocolate City. Would that it were so.

        and yet

        irrational: Sì, the land of gianduiotti. I regularly walk past a Caffarel shop, with its sign indicating “1826,” and the Caffè al Bicerin claims to have invented that potent chocolate drink in the mid-1700s.

        1. Bart Hansen

          Some would tend to assume Hershey, PA or Washington DC.

          Chocolate was used in Meso America a long long time ago.

    2. Revenant

      Not so egalitarian within organisations, they live for their hierarchy, Italians. Professor Dottore etc.

      Maybe egalitarian on the street with strangers. But also, possibly, simply defensively polite. In Italy, you can never quite be sure who is allied with whom (all the way up/down to the Mafia, Operation Gladio etc) and you can be definitely sure that who is up will be done and vice versa before long. And it has been that way since the city states.

      When everything must change to stay the same, good manners and public respect of others are an investment in the uncertain future.

      And they are a very local people, often studying and working and raising families and retiring in the region of their birth, so you don’t foul your nest….

      The American problem is an incapability of taking the long view. There is always a West to tame, new land to plough, a suburb to expand into, a job to move state for, so America does not expect to live with any consequences. This shows up in throwaway consumption, in construction of tarpaper McMansions, in urban sprawl and GM crops and, of course, in foreign policy.

      If you will play the prisoners’ dilemma once, the optimal opening strategy is very different (selfishness) than if you will play it in multiple rounds (cooperation).

    3. Swamp Yankee

      In my experience, small town New England is extremely polite — not warm, but polite — in a way that reminds me of DJG’s description of manners in Italy’s Chocolate City, above.

      Now, some things that are polite elsewhere are not polite here, and vice versa; here, among this taciturn people, it is not impolite to pass by someone on the street with little to no acknowledgement if you don’t know them; in other parts of America, that is not the case, in my experience; Midwesterners tend to find us a bit cold, Southerners often, as well.

      But that politeness does give a neutral space. I do think it has to do with our direct democracies, the Open Town Meeting form of government, and the fact that we are taught, in this corner of Mass., parliamentary procedure at a young age in public schools (every registered voter is a member of the directly democratic legislative branch of our municipalities, the Town Meeting, which is a parliamentary body).

  7. John Steinbach

    Surprised the author didn’t mention Rogerian Argumentation, based of Carl Rogers work. The idea is that for effective communication to occur (persuasion?), each side must, first, understand & articulate the other’s position to the satisfaction of both parties. Otherwise they are simply talking past each other.

    On the other hand in today’s polarized political environment, how likely is it to find two such individuals?

  8. GramSci

    So, hoping to persuade her otherwise, I wondered “Why does my wife think Putin ever liked Trump, or that he never had cause to dislike a Clinton?”

    According to the ‘Summarizer’ at the top of my Brave search for russian life expectancy under yeltsin, I learned that:

    «However, due to political stability, economic growth and improved security under Yeltsin coupled with decisive efforts to improve healthy lifestyles and the healthcare system, Russian life expectancy has since surged to 74 years.»

    but the cited source actually reads.

    «But with political stability, economic growth, and improved security under Putin coupled with decisive efforts to improve healthy lifestyles and the healthcare system, the situation has rapidly changed for the better. According to the latest figures for 2019H1, Russian life expectancy has shot up to 74 years..»

    (My emphases.)

    How quaint discussions of the trivium and civil persuasion seem to me now.

    1. anahuna

      I thought that I had developed an almost imperturbable resistance to the constant “Shocking,” and “Horrifying” headlines, but when I read your account of the brazen Yeltsin/Putin switch, I gasped.

      1. GramSci

        I’ve been trying Brave since DDG went over to the dark side. Back to Qwant, I guess…

  9. Susan the other

    that’s interesting. I don’t remember too many political debates offering the reasons for their positions. Not many “because” this or that has happened or will happen and how to deal with it. That kind of stuff is for real debates requiring rational viewpoints. Debates meant to baffle or charm don’t get into the real weeds, they are too busy stereotyping.

  10. Hana M

    I travel often in the middle east and once had a problem with Israeli airport security. They questioned me for over two hours and I finally lost my temper and started name dropping and saying stuff like “How dare you question me like this!” They finally let me in where I was met at the other side of customs by my worried Israeli friend. His comment, “You should have lost your temper two hours ago. Actual agents are trained to keep their cool no matter what. Being polite and cooperative is what made them suspicious.” There is a time for everything, including bad temper.

  11. Dida

    I also operate on the assumption that my needs won’t be met so when I detect signs of being ignored I get aggressive very quickly. Being habituated to being aggressive in new situations predisposes me towards undue vigilance generally.

    Yves, as someone born into a solidly pathological family (for 3-4 generations that I know of), I’m going to make a rather tactless comment here, but please know it is born out of genuine care. If it displeases you, I trust you won’t post it.

    Operating on the assumption that your needs won’t be met – and the aggression and hypervigilance that come with it – screams flawed parents and a crappy childhood that left you without the crucial skills to get your needs met in life. Costly and painful therapy is required to fix this, not lessons in the art of respectful persuasion.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      It is actually the result of moving on average every 2 years and being large, fat, glasses-wearing, generally very unattractive and taunted mercilessly by girls every time.

      Therapy is useless. Tried that, and with more than one therapist. This is actually not something they are able to treat.

      Therapy may help with well trodden issues like relationship problems, addiction, phobias. They do not have remedies for anxiety or the belief the world is not safe, which BTW is actually sound. Psychologists have admitted to the conundrum that mildly depressed people have a more accurate view of the world than supposedly well adjusted people. It appears most throw up a fog of cheerful denial to get by. Similarly, most major religions have as a major role reconciling their followers to the inevitability of suffering and death.

      And as my airport example shows, if you are handicapped and traveling solo, you often do need to be aggressive and hypervigiliant. I have TWICE been left at the wrong gate, once long before my flight (and the flight at the gate I was mistakenly dumped at) were set to leave, so there were no attendants at the gate or people in the waiting area. I had to scream bloody murder to get the attention of airport personnel 2 gates away. The second time I was abandoned I also had to get loud.

      Similarly, I have to tell the wheelchair pushers to wait for me to shorten the handle on my non-standard wheelie bag (which really does need to happen) and direct them how to place it underneath the wheelchair so as to prevent damage to my laptop and allow me to retrieve it easily. I have found I need to watch them do it because roughly half the time they try to do it incorrectly. But nearly 100% of the time they get incredibly pissy that I don’t immediately sit in the wheelchair and try to direct the handling of my bag. And I do make an effort to be nice in tone of voice and content and explain this is to help them too (easier to slip the bag under seat before passenger gets in seat) but it seems to do nothing to improve the dynamic.

      So yes, hypervigilance and aggression are necessary in these circumstances.

  12. LifelongLib

    Somebody once said that the problem with not having an agreed-upon code of manners is that it is easy to insult someone accidentally and difficult to do so deliberately. That certainly seems like the case now…

  13. Stephen

    This is a very interesting and very tricky area.

    All of the points make sense really.

    My own experience has tended to be that the overarching requirement is to put oneself in the position of the other person. Think about the situation from their perspective. Then use the right combination of rational arguments combined with softer skills, including listening. But framing the interaction as being about that person and not about you is crucial.

    This is often super difficult though. Yesterday I was cycling and a car literally just stopped right in front of me with no use of indicators right on the roadway in the centre of Kingston upon Thames. Another cyclist and myself nearly came off and it was potentially quite dangerous. Cars doing odd stuff always feels dangerous when you are on a bike. The guy was just dropping off his partner at the most suitable place for her, and to hell with anyone else. I made a point of asking him as I slowly went by what on earth he was doing. He said he was stopping at the crossing. When I told him no one was there his reaction was to start swearing at me and calling me all sorts of things. Sometimes the interaction is possibly best avoided in the first place.

    Playing to Yves’ comments that tends to be the norm at any airport, especially but definitely not exclusively US ones! My experience has been that security and check in staff behave like mini neo cons: they have some power, like to use it and rationality or anybody else’s needs then never come into it. Of course, I have the luxury of not needing a wheel chair. So sympathise.

  14. Mark Gisleson

    Yves for the win, persuasion is not about overcoming objectives so much as sympathetically helping someone talk through their issues constructively ; ) This guest submission lacks the perspective necessary to be helpful. In a country where the leadership has been unmercifully gaslighting the public for decades and in which the news media has proven to be utterly craven and without scruples, any attempts at persuasion will be resisted.

    Fox reminded Democrats how to lie about issues and they in turn put on master classes in how to beat someone at their own game…after the crowd had already gone home and in fact it was at a cheerleader camp but only a Trumpie would care about that!!!

    No one is listening anymore, nor should they.

    New voices will emerge and they will not argue with us. They’ll whisper in our ear and they’ll tell us what we want to hear. We’ll complain and they’ll join right in. They’ll be sympathetic and responsive. They will not try to impose an agenda on you (until after they’re in charge).

    When persuasion fails, lying always works.

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