How to say it so they can hear it

Dan Gregory

“You can’t handle the truth!” So said Jack Nicholson in A few good men. And he’s right.

The truth is; we are all delicate flowers wrapped in paper-thin skins, indulging unconscious (and occasionally conscious) biases and prejudices. To add insult to injury, half of us are below average intelligence!

So, how did you handle those truths? Or, did you simply laugh them off assuming I was talking about everyone else?

Either way, we might all agree that some of that was hard to hear, or in this case, read.

If we want to lead people, sell product, drive change or increase our influence with our team, our customers and our community, we had better learn how to say it so it can be heard… in fact, what we should really learn, is how to say it so that our message is actively sought out.

This means more than simply saying what others want to hear. Although, one of the most annoying things about click bait is that it works. For instance, I know that, statistically, having the words “How to” in the headline above will increase opens, clicks and shares. Does that mean we are all predictable sheep? Sure. Do I care if it works for me? Well… no!

However, saying it so it might be heard is rather different than choosing to fuel or ride on the back of others’ prejudices or vulnerabilities which, conversely, is a rather cynical manipulation. The latter is often taught, albeit in a more benign fashion, as a sales and persuasion technique known as “mirroring”. Which is not to say that mirroring cannot be a more empathetic and ethical tool of influence, but perhaps only when practiced by someone with more sensitivity and deftness than a large number of those who profess to teach it.

On the contrary, saying something so it might be heard is more concerned with an understanding that communication isn’t about the transmission of information, it’s about moving multiple parties towards a sense of shared meaning. In other words, if you’re talking and you think we’re just not getting it, I’m going to suggest that it’s actually you that’s not getting it.

The point is, having truth on our side, or being right, or having a weight of evidence behind us, is usually insufficient to drive engagement and change.

The problem is, most people would rather be right than rich

(If you don’t like the word “rich”, please feel free to substitute it with “… than win” or “… than be successful” or “… than be listened to”.)

The reason for this is, we love our rightness like a teenager obsessed with their first crush – and the more intelligent we are, the more this will get in the way of our success.

For example, scientists and academics are notoriously egg-headed in the intellect department but mostly sit at the tail end of the bell curve when it comes to their Influence Quotient. “But we’re right Dan, that should matter!” they’ll exclaim, stamping their feet like a precocious toddler.

So let me put this in language the scientific folk are more familiar with: You’ve been carrying out double-blind testing of the “But I’m right” hypothesis for over 100 years and it is still not producing consistent, or even vaguely positive, results. In fact, in 2017, despite all of your evidence, your research data, your peer reviewed white papers and academic accolades and awards, we’re still debating climate change, the efficacy of vaccinations, what the word theory means with regard to evolution and whether contraception and reproductive rights are a good thing or not.

All of these are issues the scientific and academic world put to bed a long time ago… so, perhaps it’s time for a new hypothesis to test.

Scientists and academics, it transpires, are just like the rest of us – we become attached to a hypothesis simply because we want it to be true. (NB. Clearly the above paragraphs were framed precisely to provoke an indignant response from scientists and academics and should not be interpreted as an illustration of the central theme of this post.)

In my opinion, a better, or more useful, hypothesis is that we all need to learn how to sell – even though we’re right, even if we don’t like the implications of that word and especially if we think we shouldn’t have to!

If you want to get people on board, to create support for your cause, lead an organization in change or even to just sell some stuff, we all need to learn how to stop banging on about our rightness and talk to “them” in a way they might care about what we care about.

So, how might we achieve this?

1. Frame your value in their values

Recently, I was listening to Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski discussing what he calls “fish love”. He retold the story of a man who claimed to love fish. The Rabbi questioned him asking, “But you take the fish from its home, kill it, boil it and eat it. Is it not more accurate to say that you love yourself?” I have little doubt that as he said this, a voice inside the Rabbi’s head vocalized the word, “Ziiiiiiiing!!!”

The point he makes is an important one. Our initial response to the world around us is driven by self-interest. In fact, our capacity to view the world through this lens has been critical to our survival as a species.

Rather than fighting this tendency and expecting people to come around to our way of thinking out of deference, we would do better to show them what’s in it for them.

2. Link your message to existing Belief Systems (even if they really do deserve the initials – “BS”)

One of the reasons affirmations are so ineffective (as opposed to mental rehearsal which does, in fact, measurably improve performance) is that when we’re lying to ourselves, even with great passion and enthusiasm, we know we’re lying.

What’s more, our brains are incredibly, and unconsciously, capable of delivering a barrage of evidentiary arguments to support this fact with the brutal demeanor of a prosecuting attorney in a bad mood.

Consider the scene from American Beauty where Annette Benning plays a Real Estate agent who chants, “I will sell this house today” over and over until she deteriorates into tears.

This cognitive dissonance, even though it may be on  shaky ground, logically, is incredibly powerful. A more useful strategy, rather than simply talking from a contrary point of view or challenging what we hold to be true, is to link what is new to what is already understood and accepted.

Metaphors and similes are extremely useful in this regard as they create vivid and visual connections to ideas and beliefs that we may no longer even question – thereby increasing the validity and salience of our new message.

3. Use anesthetic when the truth is painful

One of the things researchers in hospitals have discovered is that doctors with a good bedside manner increase the rate and efficacy of a patient’s recovery. This rather elegantly makes the point that it is not just the “what” you say that drives effectiveness, but also the “how”.

This is why humor can be such a powerful way to set people at their ease, establish rapport and broach topics that might otherwise be difficult to hear.

Certainly this is a skill that requires some skill and judgment, but when used judiciously can move those who are otherwise resistant to action.

The broad conclusion we can draw from all of this is that persuasion is not to be found in our rightness, but rather it sits on the other side of the table from ourselves, the sale is in the prospect not the product and that all influence is ultimately a product of empathy.

Of course, even this is not always easy to hear.


Dan Gregory @DanGregoryTII