How to Be Unpersuasive

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The internet and social media have given a voice to more people. On the whole, this is a good thing. Average people like you and me can share our thoughts with more people.

In this new world, both good and evil can spread to millions of people. Thoughtful and informed perspectives coexist with unthoughtful and malevolent ones.

As an online creator, I care about the thoughtful people who want to effect positive change in the world. I don’t care about the angry trolls who can’t accept that their lives did not turn out the way they expected.

But even well-intentioned and thoughtful people engage in ineffective online communication. On their pursuit of positive change, they use tactics that divide people and spread resentment. And that’s not a good thing.

Below, I share five common tactics to avoid if you want to share ideas and elevate causes.

Assuming bad intentions

“Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. – Dale Carnegie

Imagine that you’re driving home after work on a lazy Friday afternoon. The car behind you begins honking. The person swerves past you and races off.

You think, “What the hell? Why is that guy so mad. Asshole.”

That’s a normal response. But it turns out that this “asshole” is driving to the hospital to see his wife. She attempted suicide and might not survive.

Once you understand his context, you might have more compassion for his irresponsible driving. You still won’t be happy that he cut you off, but you may no longer assume he’s a terrible person.

The problem is that you rarely have this context. You only see people say or do things, and you don’t know why. So you make assumptions to fill in the gaps. Sometimes you’re right, but you’re often wrong.

Nerds like me call this bias the fundamental attribution error. It’s our tendency to associate people’s behavior with their personality and not the external events in their lives.

When you see an erratic driver, you assume he’s a reckless person. You don’t assume that he’s a guy wondering if he’ll ever say another word to the wife he loves.

This plays out in the online world all the time. You see a tweet, video, or quote that sets you off:


Well, it’s possible that your initial impression is correct – perhaps the person is a bad actor. But it’s also possible that you’re missing important context. Rarely, if ever, do you have the context you need to make accurate judgments about people.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good thing to call out nefarious people. But do a little diligence. Pause between the moment you form an initial impression and the time at which you confront the person.

Ask yourself if you’re missing important context. Ask yourself if someone else has an incentive to present this person in a negative light. You can’t always get the information you need, but you can be more thoughtful.

Key Takeaway: Before you lambast someone, consider that you may not know the whole story. How do you get the whole story? Be open-minded. Ask questions. Be aware of your biases.

Delivering poorly-constructed feedback

Readers of my weekly newsletter often give me feedback. Some people do it well – others don’t. Here’s an example of some well-crafted feedback from a reader who I’ll call “Robin.”

What’s Robin’s point? Don’t use profanity – it’s immature!

Robin did a great job of letting me know her feedback in a way that I could digest. She said she liked the ideas, noted an area for improvement, and thanked me for what I do.

What is so effective about her message is that she speaks to me from my perspective. As a newsletter creator, I want to share useful ideas for people in a way that resonates.

Robin told me how she thinks profanity may not be an effective way to reach my goal. She also thanked me for my work, which made me feel valued for taking the time to write the newsletter.

I still use profanity from time to time, but Robin made me think more about how and why I use profanity in my work.

In an alternative world, Robin could have said something like,

“Hey Calvin, I was extremely disappointed to see profanity in your newsletter – it’s immature and not an effective way of communication. I expected more from you.”

That would have been an easier message for Robin to send, and I’ve received real messages like this.

If we’re being honest, it’s the same feedback. But if she took this approach, I would not have heard her message or considered changing my actions.

I would not have understood that she wanted to help me improve my work. I would not have felt that she appreciated the newsletter. So I would have ignored her feedback and thought that she should unsubscribe if she didn’t like what she received.

Thankfully, Robin took a more effective approach.

Key Takeaway: If you want to help people understand and listen to your feedback, follow Robin’s example. Think about the person’s context. Don’t assume bad intentions. Show appreciation. Be willing to listen.

Invalidating someone’s experience

“Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, ‘You’re wrong.’” – Dale Carnegie

If you want someone to stop listening to you, invalidate their experience.

For example, imagine that you’re a poor white male in America. You recently lost your job and don’t know how you’ll feed your kids. Your wife also told you that she wants a divorce. So you say, “Life is hard, and I’m really struggling. I don’t know if I’ll get through this.”

There are people who will respond with something like, “Are you kidding me…you’re complaining as a white male? Do you recognize the privileges you have that other people don’t?”

These people are often well-intentioned. They want this guy to understand that his skin color and gender give him certain privileges. That’s a sensible goal, but the approach in this case is counterproductive to the goal.

This person may be a white male with certain privileges, but he’s in a bad place. He doesn’t have money and doesn’t know how he will feed his kids. The woman he loves is leaving him. He’s suffering.

His suffering, especially to him, is real and important. Even if someone else may have a worse hand of cards, it doesn’t make him feel any better about his.

So when you tell him to check his privilege, he feels unheard and unvalued. He feels resentment. He does not learn the lesson you want to teach him.

The last thing you should do to anyone who is genuinely suffering is to invalidate their experience.

It’s one thing to tell a friend who is complaining about a late Uber Eats driver to stop complaining about something so stupid. That’s fine.

It’s another thing to tell a person who is going through something difficult like a divorce, PTSD, poverty, or a cancer diagnosis that his problems aren’t as bad or valid as someone else’s problems. This approach only fuels resentment.

Compassion is the best response to suffering. And compassion is not a zero-sum game, so spread it widely.

Key Takeaway: As a general rule, it’s not productive to assign relative values to people’s suffering. If someone is dealing with the hardship of real problems like poverty, compassion is the appropriate response.

Being unwilling to listen

“People gives things to others who listen to them, who value them, and who consult with them. Identify what the other person is feeling, how they perceive the situation, and the pictures in their heads.” – Dale Carnegie

I often see people express their opinions about someone or something without giving that person a chance to respond. You can certainly do that, but it’s selfish and ineffective.

Imagine I’m angry with my wife. I let her know why I’m mad, and once I’m done letting her know my thoughts, I walk away feeling good that I blew off my steam.

If I don’t give her a chance to respond, how do you think she’s going to feel? She’s probably going to feel hurt and unheard, especially if I misunderstood her actions and intentions.

If you want to engage people and help them see your perspective, you need to be as willing to listen as you are willing to dish out your thoughts. If you don’t do this, they will not change.

Progress in thinking comes through education and dialogue. The only times I’ve ever changed my mind about something are through difficult and tedious conversations.

Key Takeaway: To convince someone that you have an idea or cause worth caring about, you have to patiently do the work of educating that person. Education and change require far more listening than talking.

Minimizing good actions

Change is incremental, and if you want to incentivize people to behave in a certain way, you need to reward them when they do the actions that you think are good.

Imagine I tell my team at work that I’m open to feedback. So whenever they have feedback, they can express it to me freely.

Then, one of my teammates comes to me after a big presentation and says, “Hey, great presentation, but I think you could have stated [x] more clearly and responded to questions from [y] with more information.”

If I want to foster a culture of continuous feedback and improvement, I need to be careful with my response.

The correct response is to thank the person for the feedback, ask clarifying questions, and change my behavior over time if it makes sense to do so. With this approach, the person will feel safe giving me feedback again.

I have rarely seen someone do this well. It’s hard and sometimes hurtful to receive negative feedback. So instead of receiving the feedback well, people often dismiss what is said or try to justify why it’s wrong.

It’s certainly possible that the person giving you feedback is wrong. But if you start combating what they said, you won’t get feedback again. The person won’t feel that you actually open-minded and won’t go through the discomfort of providing you more feedback in the future.

In short, you have not rewarded the action you want to promote. So you won’t get more of that action.

Key Takeaway: If you want people to do more for the cause you care about, remember that progress and change are incremental. A small step in the right direction often leads to a bigger step down the road. Avoid the tendency to tell someone that they didn’t do enough. Reward them for good actions.

Final thoughts

To effect positive change through spreading ideas or elevating causes, you need to learn how to get people to care. Having good intentions and being well-informed is not enough. And expecting people to care because you do will never work.

Being a more persuasive, positive force in the world begins with awareness. You need to be aware of what you care about, why it matters, and how it relates to other people. Then you need to embark on the lifelong journey of helping people understand and believe in what you want to change.

This is not an easy thing to do. It takes courage to question your initial judgments. It takes work to deliver feedback in a constructive way. It takes compassion to listen deeply and respond appropriately to the suffering of another person. It takes patience to slowly promote good actions over time.

But little by little, you will get better. And you’ll see more impact from your work. That’s a good thing for the world if your work genuinely helps others.

This is advice for people who want to be a part of the solution. For those people who want to be a part of the problem, ignore everything I’ve said.

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