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Choosing Rhetorical Battles

When It Comes To Persuasion, The State Of Mind Of The Audience Is More Significant Than The Argument.

Communication assumes objectivity. Of course there are exceptions like advertising and some political discourse, but usually when we speak we expect a fair and objective reception for our words. Most business people when they request resources or advocate for a particular decision will make a point, support it with evidence and logic, and expect a fair assessment from the other party or a group.

We learn methods for making arguments in freshman speech classes, and they usually serve us well. However, we have all had experiences where we made perfectly logical arguments and drew blindingly obvious conclusions and yet our ideas were rejected. Why does this work sometimes and not others?

Simple Answer

The simple answer is that people do not always listen and evaluate objectively. When it comes to persuasion, the state of mind of the audience is more significant than the argument.

Things like fatigue, lack of interest, emotions and sometimes even misdirected logic keep us from listening carefully and drawing fair, objective conclusions. Sometimes the speaker can influence the attitude of the listener by simply suggesting that everyone agree to be objective when considering the argument. As simple-minded as this sounds, it is probably the most effective strategy.

People holding jobs that require them to make decisions know that they need to demonstrate their objectivity and reasonableness to their coworkers if they want their respect. If you can remind them of that without insulting them, you are more likely to get a fair hearing for your plan or request.

When I was debating politics with a philosophy professor once, he responded to a counterargument that I made by saying, “only an idiot would think that.” This was his way of implying that I had failed to see the logic of his words. While he had the right strategy, he opted for the wrong tactic. Unless you are a tenured philosophy professor, it is better to be more subtle when making the objectivity point.

Perhaps the most useful method for getting others to consider our arguments is to make our points sparingly and only at opportune moments. Communication is really more a social than an intellectual process. We listen to people we like. We take turns when we speak. We don’t insult one another’s intelligence. And no one is supposed to be right all of the time.

A friend of mine took issue with a quality problem that was being perpetuated by his work group. Year after year he complained about it to his coworkers. He couldn’t understand why the more he complained the less they paid attention. By the time he came to me for advice he was being treated like a guy with a bite mark in a zombie movie.

Have a Vision

It is good to have a vision for how things can improve, but that isn’t enough. To be effective, you have to know how to break the vision up into bite size chunks, and you have to have patience and dole vision-pieces out one at a time at precisely the right moments.

Moreover, you have to listen to and agree with others if you want them to listen to and agree with you. Don’t raise your point at every meeting. Pay attention to the group’s concerns and build relationships. Eventually you will get a feel for the rhythm of their communication, and you will know when it’s your turn. Then you can take some small portion of your plan and apologetically ask the group if they might want to consider it. If you have spent enough capital listening to and supporting the others, you have created a debt that they will feel a need to repay by listening to and supporting you.

If you are successful, remember to hold back on your other points. You have to cycle though more listening and supporting behaviors and wait for the next opportune moment.

Human behavior doesn’t vary that much. This will work if you are in a group of secretaries, truck drivers, foremen or corporate executives. Just don’t bother trying it with philosophy professors.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..