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7 Soften People’s Resistance by Confirming Their Self-opinion
The Law of Defensiveness
Life is harsh and people competitive. We naturally must look after our own interests. We also want to feel that we are independent, doing our own bidding. That is why when others try to persuade or change us, we become defensive and resistant. To give in challenges our need to feel autonomous. That is why to get people to move from their defensive positions you must always make it seem like what they are doing is of their own free will. Creating a feeling of mutual warmth helps soften people’s resistance and makes them want to help. Never attack people for their beliefs or make them feel insecure about their intelligence or goodness—that will only strengthen their defensiveness and make your task impossible. Make them feel that by doing what you want they are being noble and altruistic—the ultimate lure. Learn to tame your own stubborn nature and free your mind from its defensive and closed positions, unleashing your creative powers.
The Influence Game
In December 1948, Senator Tom Connally of Texas received a visit from the newly elected second senator of the state, Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973). Johnson had previously served as a Democratic congressman in the House of Representatives for twelve years, and had earned a reputation as a politician with high ambitions who was quite impatient to realize them. He could be brash, opinionated, and even a bit pushy.
Connally knew all of this, but he was willing to judge Johnson for himself. He studied the young man closely (Connally was thirty-one years older). He had met him before and thought him rather astute. But after exchanging a few pleasantries, Johnson revealed his true motives: he was hoping to get a seat on one of the three most prestigious committees in the Senate—Appropriations, Finance, or Foreign Relations. Connally served on two of them as a senior member. Johnson seemed to suggest that as a fellow Texan Connally could help him get what he wanted. Connally felt that Johnson clearly did not understand how the senatorial system worked, and he decided to put him in his place right then and there.
Acting as if he were doing Johnson a great favor, he offered to help him get a seat on the Agriculture Committee, knowing full well Johnson would find this insulting—it was among the least coveted of all committees. Thrusting the knife in deeper, Connally said that he had followed Johnson’s senatorial campaign and had heard him exclaim numerous times that he was a friend of the farmer. Here was his chance to prove it. The Agriculture Committee would be a perfect fit. Johnson could not hide his displeasure and squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. “And then, Lyndon,” Connally concluded, “after you’ve been in the Senate for a while, then you get on the Foreign Relations or Finance Committee, and render a real public service.” And by “for a while” Connally meant a good twelve to twenty years, the usual time it took for any senator to amass enough influence. It was called seniority and that was how the game was played. It had taken Connally himself nearly twenty years to get his plum committee positions.
Over the next few weeks, word quickly spread among senators that Johnson was someone to keep an eye on, a potential hothead. And so it was a pleasant surprise when many of them saw and met him for the first time, after he was officially inaugurated. He was not at all what they had expected. He was the picture of politeness, and very deferential. He would often come to visit them in their offices. He would announce himself to the secretary in the outer office, then patiently wait there until called in, sometimes for an hour. He didn’t seem bothered by this—he busied himself by reading or taking notes. Once inside, he’d ask the senator about his wife and family or his favorite sports team—he had clearly done his homework on the senator in question. He could be quite self-deprecating. He’d often first introduce himself as “Landslide Lyndon,” everyone knowing he had won his Senate seat by the slimmest of margins.
Mostly, however, he came to talk business and get advice. He’d ask a question or two about some bill or bit of senatorial procedure and would listen with a focus that was striking and charming, almost like a child. His large brown eyes would stay fixed on the senator in question, and with his chin resting on his hand, he would occasionally nod and every now and then ask another question. The senators could tell he was paying deep attention because invariably he would act on their advice or repeat their very words to someone else, always crediting the senator who had spoken them. He would leave with a gracious thank-you for their time and for the invaluable education they had provided. This was not the spirited hothead they had heard so much about, and the contrast redounded to his credit.
The senators saw him most often on the Senate floor, and unlike any other member of the institution, he attended every session and sat almost the whole time at his desk. He took copious notes. He wanted to learn everything about senatorial procedure—a dull affair, but one that seemed to captivate him. He was far, however, from being a dullard. When senators encountered him in the hallway or in the cloakroom, he always had a good joke to tell or some amusing anecdote. He had spent his early years in rural poverty, and although he was well educated, his language had some of the color and biting humor of the Texan farmer and migrant worker. The senators found him amusing. Even Tom Connally had to admit that he had somehow misread him.
Older senators, referred to at the time as Old Bulls, particularly came to appreciate Lyndon Johnson. Although they held positions of great authority based on their seniority, they often felt insecure about their age (some were in their eighties) and their physical and mental capacities. But here was Johnson visiting their offices frequently, intent on absorbing their wisdom.
One older Democratic senator in particular took to Johnson—Richard Russell of Georgia. He was only eleven years older than Johnson, but he had been serving in the Senate since 1933 and had become one of its most powerful members. They had gotten to know each other because Johnson had requested and received a seat on the Armed Services Committee, on which Russell was second in seniority. Russell crossed paths with Johnson in the cloakroom, in the corridors, on the Senate floor; he seemed to be everywhere. And although Johnson visited Russell in his office almost every day, Russell came to enjoy his presence. Like Russell, Johnson was mostly all business, and full of questions on arcane Senate procedures. He began to call Russell “the Old Master,” and he would often say, “Well, that’s a lesson from the Old Master. I’ll remember that.” Russell was one of the few senators who had remained a bachelor. He never admitted he was lonely, but he spent almost all of his time at his Senate office, even on Sundays. As Johnson would often be in Russell’s office discussing some matter until the evening, he would sometimes invite Russell over for dinner at his house, telling him that his wife, Lady Bird, was an excellent cook, particularly good with southern dishes. The first few times Russell politely refused, but finally he relented and he soon became a weekly regular at the Johnson house. Lady Bird was charming and he quickly took to her.
Slowly the relationship between Russell and Johnson deepened. Russell was a baseball fanatic, and to his delight, Johnson confessed a weakness for the sport as well. Now they would go together to night games of the Washington Senators. A day would not pass in which they did not see each other, as the two of them would often be the only senators in their offices working on the weekends. They seemed to have so many interests in common, including the Civil War, and they thought alike on so many issues dear to southern Democrats, such as their opposition to a civil rights bill.
Soon Russell could be heard touting the junior senator as “a can-do young man” with a capacity equal to his own for hard work. Johnson was the only junior senator over his long career whom he referred to as a “disciple.” But the friendship went deeper than that. After attending a hunting party that Johnson had organized in Texas, Russell wrote to him, “Ever since I reached home I have been wondering if I would wake up and find that I had just been dreaming that I had made a trip to Texas. Everything was so perfect that it is difficult to realize that it could happen in real life.” In 1950 the Korean War broke out and there was pressure on the Armed Services Committee to form a subcommittee to investigate the military’s preparedness for the war. Such a subcommittee had been formed during World War II and chaired by Harry Truman, and it was through that chairmanship that Truman had become famous and risen to power. The current chairman of the Armed Services Committee was Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland. Tydings would naturally assume the chairmanship of the subcommittee, since it would be a great platform for publicity.
Johnson approached Tydings with a proposal: Tydings was facing a reelection campaign that year, and Johnson offered to chair the subcommittee only up to the time of the election, allowing Tydings to focus on winning it. Then he would step aside and let Tydings have the position. Tydings, protective of the powers he had accrued, declined Johnson’s offer. But then Dick Russell met with him and said something to cause Tydings to change his mind. Johnson was named the chairman, a stunning coup for a senator who had been on the job for only a year and a half, and he would hold on to the job for quite a while, as Tydings lost his reelection bid.
As chairman Johnson was suddenly receiving national public exposure, and journalists covering the Senate discovered that he was a master at handling the press. He carefully guarded the findings of the subcommittee, allowing no leaks to journalists. He surrounded its work with tremendous mystery and drama, giving the impression that the committee was uncovering some real dirt on the military. He doled out information and reports to a select group of powerful journalists who had written articles that he had approved of. The other journalists had to fight for any news crumbs he deigned to offer.
The junior senator began to fascinate the press corps—he was tough yet sympathetic to the journalists’ job. And most important, he knew how to give them a good story. Soon some of them were writing about him as a zealous patriot, a future political force to be reckoned with. Now Russell could properly defend his elevation of Johnson—the senator from Texas had done a great job and had finally gotten the Senate some positive publicity.
In May and June of 1951, Johnson and Russell worked closely together on the recall of General MacArthur from Korea. Now Russell had a firsthand view of Johnson’s staff, and he was astounded at how efficient it was, larger and better organized than his own. It made Russell feel out of step with the times. But Johnson, as if sensing his thoughts, began to help Russell build his own modern staff. He gave him complete access to the legal and public relations teams he had developed, showing Russell how helpful they could be. As Johnson worked with him on this, the bond between them grew even tighter. One day Russell told a reporter, “That Lyndon Johnson could be president, and would make a good one.” The reporter was flabbergasted. It was so unlike Russell to ever pay such a compliment.
One spring day in 1951, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota was waiting to catch the subway to the Capitol when Lyndon Johnson suddenly approached him and suggested they ride together and talk. Such words were like music to Humphrey; he almost couldn’t believe Johnson was sincere in the offer. Humphrey had joined the Senate at the same time as Johnson, and he had been considered the bigger star, a charismatic liberal who could be president one day. Humphrey, however, had a problem that had completely impeded his rise to the top: he believed so stridently in liberal causes that he had alienated almost everyone else. In his first speech to the Senate, Humphrey criticized the institution for its slow pace of change and its cozy atmosphere. Soon he was paid back in kind—relegated to the worst committees. The bills he introduced went nowhere. When he would walk into the Senate cloakroom, he would be shunned by almost everyone. As this ostracism got worse, Humphrey felt increasingly depressed and despondent. Sometimes driving home from work, he would pull over and cry. His career had taken a very wrong turn.
In the subway car together, Johnson praised him effusively. “Hubert,” he told him, “you have no idea what a wonderful experience it is for me ride to the Senate chamber with you. There are so many ways I envy you. You are articulate, you have such a broad range of knowledge.” Feeling relieved to hear this, Humphrey was then surprised by the vehemence of Johnson’s criticisms that followed. “But goddammit, Hubert, you’re spending so much time making speeches that there is no time left to get anything done.” Humphrey needed to be more pragmatic, fit in better. When they finally parted, Johnson invited Humphrey to stop by his office one day for drinks. Humphrey soon became a regular visitor, and this southern senator, quite loathed by northern liberals as the darling of the conservative Russell, enthralled him.
First, Johnson was immensely entertaining. Everything he said was accompanied by some folksy anecdote, often of a bawdy nature but always teaching some wicked lesson. Sitting in his office, the drinks being lavishly poured, he would instigate bouts of laughter that would reverberate through the corridors. It was hard to resist a man who could put you in a good mood. He had incredible presence. As Humphrey later wrote, “He’d come on just like a tidal wave sweeping all over the place. He went through walls. He’d come through a door and he’d take the whole room over.” Second, he had such invaluable information to share. He taught Humphrey all of the intricacies of Senate procedure and the knowledge he had accrued about the psychological weaknesses of various senators through close observation. He had become the greatest vote counter in the history of the Senate, able to predict the results of almost any Senate vote with astounding accuracy. He shared with Humphrey his vote-counting method.
Finally, he taught Humphrey the power he could have by compromising, by being more pragmatic and less idealistic. He would share with him stories about FDR, Humphrey’s hero. When Johnson was in the House of Representatives, he had become close friends with the president. FDR, according to Johnson, was a consummate politician who knew how to get things done by retreating tactically and even compromising. The subtext here was that Johnson was really a closet liberal who also idolized FDR and who wanted just as much as Humphrey to pass a civil rights bill. They were both on the same side, fighting for the same noble causes.
Working with Johnson, there was no limit to how high Humphrey could rise within the Senate and beyond. As Johnson had correctly guessed, Humphrey had presidential ambitions. Johnson himself could never become president, or so he said to Humphrey, because the nation was not ready for a president from the South. But he could help Humphrey get there. Together they would make an unbeatable team.
What sealed the deal for Humphrey, however, was how Johnson proceeded to make his life easier within the Senate. Johnson talked to his fellow southern Democrats about Humphrey’s intelligence and humor, how they had misread him as a man. Having softened them up in this way, Johnson then reintroduced Humphrey to these senators, who found him charming. Most important of all, he got Russell to change his mind—and Russell could move mountains. Now that he was sharing drinks with the more powerful senators, Humphrey’s loneliness faded away. He felt compelled to return the favor and to get many northern liberals to change their minds about Johnson, whose influence was now beginning to spread like an invisible gas.
In 1952 the Republicans swept into power with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president, taking in the process control of the Senate and the House. One of the casualties in the election was Ernest McFarland of Arizona, the former Democratic leader in the Senate. Now that the leadership position was vacant, the scrambling for his replacement began.
Johnson suggested that Russell himself take the position, but Russell declined. He could have more power operating behind the scenes. Instead he told Johnson he should be the next leader, and Russell could make it happen. Johnson, acting surprised, said he would consider it, but only if Russell would remain the Old Master and advise Johnson every step of the way. He did not have to say another word. Within weeks, Russell had essentially helped secure him the position, and it was a remarkable coup. At the age of forty-four, Johnson was by far the youngest leader in the history of either party.
Several weeks into his new position, Johnson came to Russell with a most unusual request. Positions on key committees had been based for decades on seniority. But what this meant was that committee chairmen were often not up to the job. Men in their seventies and eighties had ideas that were rooted in the past. They did not have the stomach for a big fight. Now, with the Republicans in full control, they were planning on rolling back some of FDR’s greatest achievements with the New Deal and in foreign policy. It was going to be a rough two years until midterm elections.
Johnson wanted the power as the leader of the Senate Democrats to alter the committee landscape. He was not advocating anything radical. He would shift here and there a few committees and chairmanships, bringing in some fresh blood, such as the newly elected Senator John Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey, whom he wanted to get on the Foreign Relations Committee. These younger men would give a fresh public face to the party and bring some energy in combating the Republicans. Russell could see the wisdom in this, and he gave Johnson his tacit approval, but he also warned him: “You’re dealing with the most sensitive thing in the Senate. . . . [You’re] playing with dynamite.” Johnson approached other older senators. Some were easy to convince, such as Senator Robert Byrd, who had a great fondness for the new leader. Liberals came on board with these changes, thanks to the work of Humphrey, who now had tremendous power as the liaison between Johnson and the northerners. Others were much more recalcitrant. Johnson, however, would not give up the fight. With those who continued to resist, he went into a higher gear. He became relentless. He would spend hours in his office behind a closed door, talking to himself, rehearsing his arguments and the counterarguments of these stubborn senators until he was sure he had found the perfect approach. To some he argued pure pragmatism—the need to defeat the Republicans at all costs. With others he reached back to the glory years of FDR. To southern senators he made it clear that making the party more powerful and unified would make Johnson’s job easier, and that as a fellow southerner he would be their ultimate ally in further fights.
He served them endless drinks in his office, pulled out the full arsenal of his wit and charm. He would telephone them at all hours. If the senator continued resisting, he would call again later in the evening. He never argued with vehemence or tried to force the issue. He saw their side. He offered numerous quid pro quos. Eventually, as one senator after another relented, he got the last holdouts to cave in. Somehow Johnson was now someone to fear; if they did not give in and remained one of the few holdouts, clearly he could make their lives miserable over the next few years.
When it finally became public, the Republicans and the press were astounded at what Lyndon Johnson had accomplished. In a matter of weeks, since assuming the leadership position, he had gained unprecedented powers. He, not the seniority system, controlled committee appointments. He was now the undisputed “Master of the Senate,” and the byword among his colleagues was “Let Lyndon do it.” Drawn into his sphere of influence was the most unlikely cast of characters—from Dick Russell to Hubert Humphrey. But the most astonished person of all must have been Senator Tom Connally himself. In four short years, Johnson had not only risen to the top but had gained control of the Senate Democrats through a slow and steady campaign of accumulating influence, far surpassing the power Connally had accrued in over twenty years of service.
• • •
Interpretation: From the beginning of his political career, Johnson had a single ambition—to one day become president of the United States. To get there he needed a relatively swift rise to prominence. The younger he reached leadership positions, the more time he would have to spread his name and gain leverage within the Democratic Party. Elected to the House of Representatives at the age of twenty-eight, he seemed on track to get what he wanted, but in the House his career got bogged down. The place was so big and complex, and he was not good at dealing with large groups. He was not an exciting public speaker. He was much more charming in one-on-one situations. He became frustrated and restless. Finally reaching the Senate at the age of forty, he brought with him his impatience, as evidenced by his meeting with Connally. But shortly before his inauguration, he toured the floor of the Senate and had an epiphany: the place was much smaller; it was more like a cozy club for gentlemen. Here he could work one on one and slowly gain power by accumulating influence.
To accomplish this, however, he had to transform himself. He was naturally aggressive; he would have to rein this in, slow down, and step back. He would have to stop talking so much and getting into heated arguments. Let other people do the talking; let them feel like the star of the show. Stop thinking of himself; instead, focus completely on his fellow senators as they talked and talked. Assume the inoffensive front of the junior senator learning the ropes, the serious and somewhat dull student of procedure and legislation. Behind this front he could observe people without seeming ambitious or aggressive. In this way he could slowly gain knowledge of the inner workings of the Senate—vote counting, how bills were actually passed—and insights into the various senators, their deepest insecurities and weaknesses. At some point, his deep understanding of the institution would translate into a commodity he could exchange for influence and favors.
After several months of this campaign, he was able to alter the reputation he had had in the House. He no longer seemed a threat, and with the senators’ defenses down, Johnson could escalate his campaign.
He turned his attention to winning over key allies. As he had always believed, having one key ally at or near the top of the hierarchy could move mountains. Early on he spotted Senator Russell as the perfect target—lonely, a believer in a cause without any real disciples, and very powerful. Johnson genuinely liked Russell, and he was always in search of father figures, but his attention and approach were highly strategic. He made sure he got appointed to the Armed Services Committee, where he would have the most access to Russell. Their constant encounters in the hallway or the cloakroom were rarely accidental. Without making it obvious, he slowly increased the hours they spent together. Johnson had never liked baseball and could care less about the Civil War, but he quickly learned to cultivate an interest in both. He mirrored back to Russell his own conservative values and work ethic and made the lonely senator feel like he had not only a friend but a worshipping son and disciple.
Johnson was careful to never ask for favors. Instead he quietly did favors himself for Russell, helping him to modernize his staff. When Johnson finally wanted something, such as the chairmanship of the subcommittee, he would insinuate his desire rather than directly express it. Russell would come to see him as an extension of his own political ambitions, and at that point he would do almost anything for his acolyte.
Within a few years, word got around that Johnson was a masterful vote counter and had inside knowledge on various senators, the kind of information that could be extremely useful when trying to get a bill passed. Now senators would come to him for this information, and he would share it with the understanding that at some point he would expect favors in return. Slowly his influence was spreading, but he realized that his desire to have the dominant position within his party and the Senate had one major obstacle—the northern liberals.
Once again, Johnson chose the perfect target—Senator Humphrey. He read him as a man who was lonely, in need of validation, but who was also tremendously ambitious. The way to Humphrey’s heart was threefold: make him feel liked, confirm his belief that he was presidential material, and give him the practical tools to realize his ambitions. As he had done with Russell, Johnson gave Humphrey the impression that he was secretly on his side, mirroring Humphrey’s deepest values by sharing his adoration of FDR. After several months of this campaign, Humphrey would do almost anything for Johnson. Now with a bridgehead established to the northern liberals, Johnson had expanded his influence to all corners of the Senate.
By the time the leadership position opened up, Johnson had established tremendous credibility as someone who returned favors, who could get things done, and who had very powerful allies. His desire to get control over committee assignments represented a radical change in the system, but he carefully couched it as a way to enhance the Democratic Party and help individual senators in their various battles with Republicans. It was in their interest to hand over power to Lyndon Johnson. Step by step he had acquired such influence without ever appearing aggressive or even threatening. By the time those in the party realized what had happened, it was too late—he was in complete control of the chessboard, the Master of the Senate.
Understand: Influence over people and the power that it brings are gained in the opposite way from what you might imagine. Normally we try to charm people with our own ideas, showing ourselves off in the best light. We hype our past accomplishments. We promise great things about ourselves. We ask for favors, believing that being honest is the best policy. What we do not realize is that we are putting all of the attention on ourselves. In a world where people are increasingly self-absorbed, this only has the effect of making others turn more inward in return and think more of their own interests rather than ours.
As the story of Johnson demonstrates, the royal road to influence and power is to go the opposite direction: Put the focus on others. Let them do the talking. Let them be the stars of the show. Their opinions and values are worth emulating. The causes they support are the noblest. Such attention is so rare in this world, and people are so hungry for it, that giving them such validation will lower their defenses and open their minds to whatever ideas you want to insinuate.
Your first move then is always to step back and assume an inferior position in relation to the other. Make it subtle. Ask for their advice. People are dying to impart their wisdom and experience. Once you feel that they are addicted to this attention, you can initiate a cycle of favors by doing something small for them, something that saves them time or effort. They will instantly want to reciprocate and will return the favor without feeling manipulated or pushed. And once people do favors for you, they will continue to work on your behalf. In doing something for you, they have judged you worthy of this, and to stop helping you would mean to call into question their original judgment and their own intelligence, which people are very reluctant to do. Working slowly this way in a group, you will expand your influence without its seeming aggressive or even purposeful, the ultimate disguise for your ambitions.
The true spirit of conversation consists more in bringing out the cleverness of others than in showing a great deal of it yourself; he who goes away pleased with himself and his own wit is also greatly pleased with you. Most men . . . seek less to be instructed, and even to be amused, than to be praised and applauded.
—Jean de La Bruyère
Keys to Human Nature
From early on in life we humans develop a defensive and self-protective side to our personality. It begins in early childhood as we cultivate a sense of personal physical space that others should not violate. It later expands into a feeling of personal dignity—people should not coerce or manipulate us into doing things we don’t want to. We should be free to choose what we desire. These are necessary developments in our growth as socialized humans.
As we get older, however, these defensive qualities often solidify into something much more rigid, and for good reason. People are continually judging and appraising us—are we competent enough, good enough, a team player? We never feel quite free of this scrutiny. One noticeable failure in our lives, and people’s scrutiny will turn into negative judgments that can cripple us for a long time. Furthermore, we have the feeling that people are always trying to take from us—they want our time, our money, our ideas, our labor. In the face of all of this, we naturally become more self-absorbed and defensive—we have to look after our own interests, since nobody else will. We set up walls around ourselves to keep out intruders and those who want something from us.
By the time we reach our twenties, we have all developed systems of defense, but in certain circumstances our inner walls can come tumbling down. For instance, during a night of revelry with friends, perhaps after some drinking, we feel bonded with others and not judged by them. Our minds loosen up, and suddenly new and very interesting ideas come to us, and we’re open to doing things we would normally never do. In another instance, perhaps we attend some public rally and hear an inspiring speaker advocating for a cause. Feeling on the same page as hundreds of others, caught up in the group spirit, we suddenly feel called to action and to work for the cause—something we might normally resist.
The most telling example, however, occurs when we fall in love and the feeling is reciprocated. The other person appreciates and reflects back to us our most positive qualities. We feel worthy of being loved. Under such a spell, we let go of our ego and our habitual stubbornness; we give the other person unusual sway over our willpower.
What these moments have in common is that we feel inwardly secure—not judged but accepted by friends, the group, or the loved one. We see a reflection of ourselves in others. We can relax. At our core we feel validated. Not needing to turn inward and defensive, we can direct our minds outward, beyond our ego—to a cause, a new idea, or the happiness of the other.
Understand: Creating this feeling of validation is the golden key that will unlock people’s defenses. And we cannot survive and thrive in this highly competitive world without possessing such a power.
We continually find ourselves in situations in which we need to move people from their resistant positions. We need their assistance, or we need the ability to alter their ugly behavior. If we flail about, improvising in the moment, trying to plead, cajole, and even make people feel guilty, we are more than likely only making them more defensive. If we somehow succeed in getting what we want through these methods, their support is thin, with an undercurrent of resentment. We have taken from them—time, money, ideas—and they will close themselves off to further influence. And if we go through long stretches of time continually butting up against people’s resistance and getting nowhere, we can face a very dangerous dynamic in life—mounting frustration at the apparent indifference of people. This subtly infects our attitude. When we find ourselves in situations needing to influence people, they sense our neediness and insecurity. We try too hard to please. We seem ever so slightly desperate, defeated before starting. This can turn into a negative self-fulfilling dynamic that will keep us marginalized without ever being aware of the source of the problem.
Before it is too late we must turn this dynamic around, as Johnson did at the age of forty. We must discover the power that we can possess by giving people the validation they crave and lowering their defenses. And the key to making this happen in a realistic and strategic manner is to fully understand a fundamental law of human nature.
This law is as follows: People have a perception about themselves that we shall call their self-opinion. This self-opinion can be accurate or not—it doesn’t matter. What matters is how people perceive their own character and worthiness. And there are three qualities to people’s self-opinion that are nearly universal: “I am autonomous, acting of my own free will”; “I am intelligent in my own way”; and “I am basically good and decent.”
When it comes to the first universal (I am acting of my own free will), if we join a group, or believe something, or buy a product, it is because we choose to do so. The truth might be that we were manipulated or succumbed to peer pressure, but we will tell ourselves something else. If we ever feel consciously coerced—as in having to obey a boss—we either tell ourselves we have chosen to obey or we deeply resent being forced and manipulated. In the latter case, we might smile and obey, but we will find a way to secretly rebel. In other words, we feel the need to continually express and assert our free will.
With the second universal (I am intelligent), we may realize we are not on the level of an Einstein, but in our field, in our own way, we are intelligent. A plumber revels in his superior knowledge of the inner workings of a house and in his manual skills, which are a form of intelligence. He also thinks his political opinions come from solid common sense, another sign of intelligence, as he sees it. People are generally never comfortable with the thought that they could be gullible and less than intelligent. If they have to admit they are not smart in the conventional way, they will at least think they are cleverer than others.
With the third universal (I am a good person), we like to see ourselves as supporting the right causes. We treat people well. We are a team player. If we happen to be the boss and we like to instill discipline in the troops, we call it “tough love.” We are acting for the good of others.
In addition to these universals, we find that people have more personalized self-opinions that serve to regulate their particular insecurities. For instance, “I’m a free spirit, one of a kind” or “I’m very self-reliant and don’t need anybody’s help” or “I am good-looking and I can depend on that” or “I am a rebel and disdain all authority.” Implied in these various self-opinions is a feeling of superiority in this one area: “I am a rebel and you are less so.” Many of these types of self-opinions are related to developmental issues in early childhood. For instance, the rebel type had a father figure who disappointed him; or perhaps he suffered from bullying and cannot bear any feeling of inferiority. He must despise all authority. The self-reliant type may have experienced a very distant mother, be haunted by feelings of abandonment, and have crafted a self-image of rugged independence.
Our self-opinion is primary: it determines so much of our thinking and our values. We will not entertain ideas that clash with our self-opinion. Let us say we see ourselves as particularly tough and self-reliant. We will then gravitate toward ideas and philosophies that are realistic, hard-core, and unforgiving of others’ weaknesses. If in this scenario we also happen to be Christian, we will then reinterpret Christian religious doctrines to match our tough self-image, finding elements within Christianity that emphasize self-reliance, tough love, and the need to destroy our enemies. In general, we will choose to belong to groups that validate our feeling of being noble and smart. We might think we have particular ideas or values that stand on their own, but in fact they are dependent on our self-opinion.
When you try to convince people of something, one of three things will happen. First, you might inadvertently challenge a particular aspect of their self-opinion. In a discussion that might turn into an argument, you make them feel stupid or brainwashed or less than good. Even if you are subtle in your arguments, the implication is that you know better. If this happens, you make people even more defensive and resistant. Walls go up that will never come down.
Second, you can leave their self-opinion in a neutral position—neither challenged nor confirmed. This often happens if you try to be reasonable and calm in your approach, avoiding any emotional extremes. In this scenario people remain resistant and dubious, but you have at least not tightened them up, and you have some room to maneuver them with your rational arguments.
Third, you can actively confirm their self-opinion. In this case you are fulfilling one of people’s greatest emotional needs. We can imagine that we are independent, intelligent, decent, and self-reliant, but only other people can truly confirm this for us. And in a harsh and competitive world in which we are all prone to continual self-doubt, we almost never get this validation that we crave. When you give it to people, you will have the magical effect that occurred when you yourself were drunk, or at a rally, or in love. You will make people relax. No longer consumed by insecurities, they can direct their attention outward. Their minds open, making them susceptible to suggestion and insinuation. If they decide to help you, they feel like they are doing this of their own free will.
Your task is simple: instill in people a feeling of inner security. Mirror their values; show that you like and respect them. Make them feel you appreciate their wisdom and experience. Generate an atmosphere of mutual warmth. Get them to laugh along with you, instilling a feeling of rapport. All of this works best if the feelings are not completely faked. By exercising your empathy, by getting inside their perspective (see chapter 2 for more on this), you are more likely to genuinely feel at least a part of such emotions. Practice this often enough and confirming people’s self-opinion will become your default position—you will have a loosening-up effect on almost everyone you encounter.
One caveat: most people have a relatively high self-opinion, but some people have a low opinion of themselves. They tell themselves, “I am not worthy of good things” or “I am not such a nice person” or “I have too many problems and issues.” Because they generally expect bad things to happen to them, they often feel relieved and justified when bad things do happen. In this way their low self-opinion serves to calm their insecurities about ever getting success in life. If your targets have a low self-opinion, the same rule applies. If you insist that they can easily better their lives by following your advice, this will clash with their belief that the world is against them and that they really do not deserve such good things. They will discount your ideas and resist you. Instead you must work from within their self-opinion, empathizing with the injustices in their life and the difficulties they have faced. Now, with them feeling validated and mirrored, you have some latitude to make gentle corrections and even apply some reverse psychology (see the section below).
Finally, the greatest obstacle you will face in developing these powers comes from a cultural prejudice against the very idea of influence: “Why can’t we all just be honest and transparent with one another, and simply ask for what we want? Why can’t we just let people be who they are and not try to change them? Being strategic is ugly and manipulative.” First, when people tell you such things, you should be on guard. We humans cannot stand feelings of powerlessness. We need to have influence or we become miserable. The honestymongers are no different, but because they need to believe in their angelic qualities, they cannot square this self-opinion with the need to have influence. And so they often become passive-aggressive, pouting and making others feel guilty as a means of getting what they want. Never take people who say such things at face value.
Second, we humans cannot avoid trying to influence others. Everything we say or do is examined and interpreted by others for clues as to our intentions. We are silent? Perhaps it is because we are upset and want to make this clear. Or we are genuinely listening as a way of trying to impress with our politeness. No matter what we do, people will read into it attempts at influence, and they are not wrong in doing so. As social animals we cannot avoid constantly playing the game, whether we are conscious of this or not.
Most people do not want to expend the effort that goes into thinking about others and figuring out a strategic entry past their defenses. They are lazy. They want to simply be themselves, speak honestly, or do nothing, and justify this to themselves as stemming from some great moral choice.
Since the game is unavoidable, better to be skillful at it than in denial or merely improvising in the moment. In the end, being good at influence is actually more socially beneficial than the moral stance. By having this power, we can influence people who have dangerous or antisocial ideas. Becoming proficient at persuasion requires that we immerse ourselves in the perspective of others, exercising our empathy. We might have to abide by the cultural prejudice and nod our heads in agreement about the need for complete honesty, but inwardly we must realize that this is nonsense and practice what is necessary for our own well-being.
Five Strategies for Becoming a Master Persuader
The following five strategies—distilled from the examples of the greatest influencers in history—are designed to help you focus more deeply on your targets and create the kinds of emotional effects that will help lower people’s resistance. It would be wise to put all five into practice.
- Transform yourself into a deep listener. In the normal flow of a conversation, our attention is divided. We hear parts of what other people are saying, in order to follow and keep the conversation going. At the same time, we’re planning what we’ll say next, some exciting story of our own. Or we are even daydreaming about something irrelevant. The reason for this is simple: we are more interested in our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences than in those of the other person. If this were not the case, we would find it relatively easy to listen with full attention. The usual prescription is to talk less and listen more, but this is meaningless advice as long as we prefer our own internal monologue. The only solution is to somehow be motivated to reverse this dynamic.
Think of it this way: You know your own thoughts only too well. You are rarely surprised. Your mind tends to circle obsessively around the same subjects. But each person you encounter represents an undiscovered country full of surprises. Imagine for a moment that you could step inside people’s minds and what an amazing journey that could be. People who seem quiet and dull often have the strangest inner lives for you to explore. Even with boors and fools, you can educate yourself as to the origins and nature of their flaws. Transforming yourself into a deep listener will not only prove more amusing as you open your mind to their mind but will also provide the most invaluable lessons about human psychology.
Once you are motivated to listen, the rest is relatively simple. You cannot make the strategic purpose behind your listening too obvious. The other person has to feel it is a lively exchange, even though in the end they may do 80 percent of the talking. For this purpose, you must not barrage them with questions that make it feel like a job interview. Instead, pay attention to their nonverbal cues. You will see their eyes light up when certain topics are mentioned—you must guide the conversation in that direction. People will become chatty without realizing it. Almost everyone likes to talk about their childhood, their family, the ins and outs of their work, or some cause that is dear to them. An occasional question or comment plays off something they have said.
You are deeply absorbed in what they say, but you must feel and appear relaxed in being so. You convey that you are listening by maintaining relatively consistent eye contact and nodding as they talk. The best way to signal how deeply you are listening is to occasionally say something that mirrors what they have said, but in your own words and filtered through your own experience. In the end, the more they talk, the more they will reveal about their insecurities and unmet desires.
Your goal is to make them come away from the encounter feeling better about themselves. You have let them be the star of the show. You have drawn out of them the wittier, more fun-loving side of their personality. They will love you for this and will look forward to the next encounter. As they become increasingly relaxed in your presence, you will have great latitude for planting ideas and influencing their behavior.
- Infect people with the proper mood. As social animals, we are extremely susceptible to the moods of other people. This gives us the power to subtly infuse into people the appropriate mood for influencing them. If you are relaxed and anticipating a pleasurable experience, this will communicate itself and have a mirror-like effect on the other person. One of the best attitudes to adapt for this purpose is one of complete indulgence. You do not judge other people; you accept them as they are.
In the novel The Ambassadors, the writer Henry James paints the portrait of this ideal in the form of Marie de Vionnet, an older French woman of impeccable manners who surreptitiously uses an American named Lambert Strether to help her in a love affair. From the very moment he meets her, Strether is captivated. She seems a “mix of lucidity and mystery.” She listens deeply to what he says and, without responding, gives him the feeling she completely understands him. She envelops him in her empathy. She acts from the beginning as if they have become good friends, but it is in her manner, nothing she says. He calls her indulgent spirit “a beautiful conscious mildness,” and it has a hypnotic power over him. Well before she even asks for his help, he is completely under her spell and will do anything for her. Such an attitude replicates the ideal mother figure—unconditional in her love. It is not expressed so much in words as in looks and body language. It works equally well on men and women and has an hypnotic effect on almost anyone.
A variation of this is to infect people with a warm feeling of rapport through laughter and shared pleasures. Lyndon Johnson was the master of this. Of course, he used alcohol, which flowed freely in his office, his targets never knowing that his own drinks were greatly watered down so he could retain control of himself. His bawdy jokes and colorful anecdotes created a comfortable club-like atmosphere for men. It was hard to resist the mood he set. Johnson could also be quite physical, often wrapping his arms around a man’s shoulder, frequently touching him on the arm. Many studies on nonverbal cues have demonstrated the incredible power that a simple touch of people’s hands or arms can have in any interaction, making them think positive things about you without their ever being aware of the source of their good opinion. Such gentle taps establish a feeling of visceral rapport, as long as you do not maintain eye contact, which will give it too much of a sexual connotation.
Keep in mind that your expectations about people are communicated to them nonverbally. It has been demonstrated, for instance, that teachers who expect greater things from their pupils can, without ever saying anything, have a positive effect on their work and grades. By feeling particularly excited when you’re meeting someone, you will communicate this to him or her in a powerful way. If there is a person of whom you will eventually ask a favor, try imagining him or her in the best light—generous and caring—if that is possible. Some have claimed to get great results by simply thinking the other person is handsome or good-looking.
- Confirm their self-opinion. Recall the universal qualities of the self-opinions of people with a high self-opinion. Here’s how to approach each one of them.
Autonomy. No attempt at influence can ever work if people feel in any way that they are being coerced or manipulated. They must choose to do whatever it is you want them to do, or they must at least experience it as their choice. The more deeply you can create this impression, the greater your chances of success.
In the novel Tom Sawyer, the twelve-year-old protagonist of the same name is portrayed as an extremely savvy boy, raised by his aunt, with an uncanny sensitivity to human nature. Despite his cleverness, Tom is always getting into trouble. The second chapter of the book begins with Tom being punished for getting in a fight. Instead of spending a hot summer Saturday afternoon messing around with his friends and swimming in the river, Tom has to whitewash the very large fence in the front of the house. As he starts the job, his friend Ben Rogers walks by, eating a delicious-looking apple. Ben is as mischievous as Tom, and seeing him at this tedious chore, he decides to torment him by asking him if he’s planning on going for a swim that afternoon, knowing full well he can’t.
Tom pretends to feign deep interest in his work. Now Ben is curious. He asks Tom if he’s seriously more interested in painting the fence than in having some fun. Tom finally addresses him, while still keeping an eye on his work. His aunt would not give such a job to just anyone, he says. It is what people see first of their house when they pass by. This is a very important job that won’t come up again for many years. In the past he and his friends painted something on fences and got into trouble; now he can do so freely. It is a challenge, a test of skill. And yes, he enjoys it. Swimming can be done any old weekend, but not this.
Ben asks if he can try his hand, to see what Tom means. After several pleas, Tom finally relents, only after Ben offers him his apple. Soon other boys approach and Tom does the same sell job on them, accumulating more pieces of fruit and toys. An hour later, we see Tom lying in the shade while a whole team of friends finishes the job for him. Tom used basic psychology to get what he wanted. First, he got Ben to reinterpret this job, not by saying anything but through his absorbed attention in the task and his body language: the task must be something interesting. Second, he framed the job as a test of skill and intelligence, a rare opportunity, something that would appeal to any competitive boy. And finally, as he knew, once the neighborhood boys saw others at the task, they would want to join in, making it a group activity. Nobody wanted to be left out. Tom could have pleaded with dozens of friends to help him and gotten nowhere. Instead he framed it in such a way that they wanted to do the work. They came to him, begging for the job.
Your attempts at influence must always follow a similar logic: how can you get others to perceive the favor you want to ask for as something they already desire? Framing it as something pleasurable, as a rare opportunity, and as something other people want to do will generally have the proper effect.
Another variation on this is to appeal directly to people’s competitive instincts. In 1948 the director Billy Wilder was casting for his new film A Foreign Affair, which was to be set in Berlin just after the war. One of the main characters was a woman named Erika von Shluetow, a German cabaret singer with suspicious ties to various Nazis during the war. Wilder knew that Marlene Dietrich would be the perfect actress to play the part, but Dietrich had publicly expressed her intense dislike of anything having to do with the Nazis and had worked hard for various Allied causes. When first approached about the role, she found it too distasteful, and that was the end of the discussion.
Wilder did not protest or plead with her, which would have been futile, given Dietrich’s famed stubbornness. Instead he told her he had found two perfect American actresses to play the part, but he wanted her opinion on which would be better. Would she view their tests? Feeling bad that she had turned down her old friend Wilder, Dietrich naturally agreed to this. But Wilder had cleverly tested two well-known actresses whom he knew would be quite terrible for the role, making a mockery of the part of a sexy German cabaret singer. The ploy worked like a charm. The very competitive Dietrich was aghast at their performances and immediately volunteered to do the part herself.
Finally, when giving people gifts or rewards as a possible means of winning them over to your side, it is always best to give smaller gifts or rewards than larger ones. Large gifts make it too apparent that you are trying to buy their loyalty, which will offend people’s sense of independence. Some might accept large gifts out of need, but later they will feel resentful or suspicious. Smaller gifts have a better effect—people can tell themselves they deserve such things and are not being bought or bribed. In fact, such smaller rewards, spread out over time, will bind people to you in a much greater way than anything lavish.
Intelligence. When you disagree with another person and impose your contrary opinion, you are implying that you know better, that you have thought things through more rationally. People challenged in this way will then naturally become even more attached to their opinions. You can prevent this by being more neutral, as if this opposing idea is simply something you are entertaining and it could be wrong. But better still, you can go much further: you see their point of view and agree with it. (Winning arguments is rarely worth the effort.) With their intelligence flattered, you now have some room to gently alter their opinion or have lowered their defenses for a request for help.
The nineteenth-century British prime minister and novelist Benjamin Disraeli conceived of an even cleverer ploy when he wrote, “If you wish to win a man’s heart, allow him to confute you.” You do this by beginning to disagree with a target about a subject, even with some vehemence, and then slowly come to seeing their point of view, thereby confirming not only their intelligence but also their own powers of influence. They feel ever so slightly superior to you, which is precisely what you want. They will now be doubly vulnerable to a countermove of your own. You can create a similar effect by asking people for advice. The implication is that you respect their wisdom and experience.
In 1782 the French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais put the finishing touches on his great masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro. The approval of King Louis XVI was required, and when he read the manuscript, he was furious. Such a play would lead to a revolution, he said: “This man mocks everything that must be respected in a government.” After much pressure he agreed to have it privately performed in a theater at Versailles. The aristocratic audience loved it. The king allowed more performances, but he directed his censors to get their hands on the script and alter its worst passages before it was presented to the public.
To bypass this, Beaumarchais commissioned a tribunal of academics, intellectuals, courtiers, and government ministers to go over the play with him. A man who attended the meeting wrote, “M. de Beaumarchais announced that he would submit unreservedly to every cut and change that the gentlemen and even the ladies present might deem appropriate. . . . Everyone wanted to add something of his own. . . . M. de Breteuil suggested a witticism, Beaumarchais accepted it and thanked him. . . . ‘It will save the fourth act.’ Mme de Matignon contributed the color of the little page’s ribbon. The color was adopted and became fashionable.” Beaumarchais was indeed a very clever courtier. By allowing others to make even the smallest changes to his masterpiece, he greatly flattered their egos and their intelligence. Of course, on the larger changes later requested by Louis’s censors, Beaumarchais did not relent. By then he had so won over the members of his own tribunal that they stridently defended him, and Louis had to back down. Lowering people’s defenses in this way on matters that are not so important will give you great latitude to move them in the direction you desire and get them to concede to your desires on more important matters.
Goodness. In our daily thoughts, we constantly comfort ourselves as to the moral nature of our actions. If we are employees of a company, we see ourselves as good team members. If we are bosses, we treat people well, or at least we pay and support them well. We help the right causes. In general, we do not like to see ourselves as selfish and narrowly focused on our own agenda. Just as important, we want others to see us in this light. Look at social media and how people will make a display of supporting the best causes. Few people give to charities anonymously—they want their names loudly advertised.
You must never inadvertently cast doubts on this saintly self-opinion. To make positive use of this trait in people, frame what you are asking them to do as part of a larger cause that they can participate in. They are not merely buying clothes but helping the environment or keeping jobs local. In taking these actions, people can feel better about themselves. Keep it subtle. If you are trying to get recruits for a job, let others spread the message about the cause. Make it appear prosocial and popular. Make people want to join the group, instead of having to plead with them. Pay great attention to the words and labels you use. It is better, for instance, to call someone a team member than an employee.
To put yourself in the inferior, one-down position, you can commit some relatively harmless faux pas, even offend people in a more pronounced way, and then ask for their forgiveness. By asking for this, you imply their moral superiority, a position people love to occupy. Now they are vulnerable to suggestion.
Finally, if you need a favor from people, do not remind them of what you have done for them in the past, trying to stimulate feelings of gratitude. Gratitude is rare because it tends to remind us of our helplessness, our dependence on others. We like to feel independent. Instead, remind them of the good things they have done for you in the past. This will help confirm their self-opinion: “Yes, I am generous.” And once reminded, they will want to continue to live up to this image and do yet another good deed. A similar effect can come from suddenly forgiving your enemies and forging a rapprochement. In the emotional turmoil this creates, they will feel obligated to live up to the high opinion you have now shown toward them and will be extra motivated to prove themselves worthy.
- Allay their insecurities. Everyone has particular insecurities—about their looks, their creative powers, their masculinity, their power status, their uniqueness, their popularity, et cetera. Your task is to get a bead on these insecurities through the various conversations you draw them into.
Once you’ve identified them, you must first be extra careful not to trigger them. People have grown sensitive antennae for any words or body language that might cast doubt on their physical appearance or their popularity, or whatever their insecurity may be. Be aware of this and be on guard. Second, the best strategy is to praise and flatter those qualities that people are most insecure about. We all crave this, even if we somehow see through the person who is praising us. That is because we live in a tough world in which we are continually judged, and yesterday’s triumph is easily followed by tomorrow’s failure. We never really feel secure. If the flattery is done right, we feel that the flatterer likes us, and we tend to like people who like us.
The key to successful flattery is to make it strategic. If I know that I am particularly awful at basketball, praising me for my basketball skills in any way will ring false. But if I am uncertain about my skills, if I imagine I am perhaps not really so bad, then any flattery on that score can work wonders. Look for those qualities people are uncertain about and offer reassurance. Lord Chesterfield advised his son in his letters (later published in 1774), “Cardinal Richelieu who was undoubtedly the ablest statesman of his time . . . had the idle vanity of being thought the best poet too: he envied the great Corneille his reputation. Those, therefore, who flattered skillfully, said little to him of abilities in state affairs, or at least but en passant, and as it might naturally occur. But the incense which they gave him, the smoke of which they knew would turn his head in their favour, was as a . . . poet.” If your targets are powerful and quite Machiavellian, they might feel somewhat insecure about their moral qualities. Flattering them about their clever manipulations might backfire, but obvious praise of their goodness would be too transparent, because they know themselves too well. Instead, some strategic flattery about how you have benefited from their advice and how their criticisms helped improve your performance will appeal to their self-opinion of being tough yet fair, with a good heart underneath the gruff exterior.
It is always better to praise people for their effort, not their talent. When you extol people for their talent, there is a slight deprecation implied, as if they were simply lucky for being born with natural skill. Instead, everyone likes to feel that they earned their good fortune through hard work, and that is where you must aim your praise.
With people who are your equals, you have more room to flatter. With those who are your superiors, it is best to simply agree with their opinions and validate their wisdom. Flattering your boss is too transparent.
Never follow up your praise with a request for help, or whatever it is you are after. Your flattery is a setup and requires the passage of some time. Do not appear too ingratiating in the first encounter or two. Better to show even a little coldness, which will give you room to warm up. After a few days you have grown to like this person, and then a few flattering words aimed at their insecurities will begin to melt their resistance. If possible, get third parties to pass along your compliments, as if they had simply overheard them. Never be too lavish in your praise or use absolutes.
A clever way to cover your tracks is to mix in some small criticisms of the person or their work, nothing that will trigger insecurities but enough to give your praise a more realistic hue: “I loved your screenplay, although I feel act two might need a little work.” Do not say, “Your latest book is so much better than the last one.” Be very careful when people ask you for their opinion about their work or something related to their character or their looks. They do not want the truth; they want support and confirmation given as realistically as possible. Be happy to supply this for them.
You must seem as sincere as possible. It would be best to choose qualities to praise that you actually admire, if at all possible. In any event, what gives people away is the nonverbal cues—praise along with stiff body language or a fake smile or eyes glancing elsewhere. Try to feel some of the good emotions you are expressing so any exaggeration will seem less obvious. Keep in mind that your target must have a relatively high self-opinion. If it is low, the flattery will not jibe with how they feel about themselves and will ring hollow, whereas for those of high self-opinion it will seem only natural.
- Use people’s resistance and stubbornness. Some people are particularly resistant to any form of influence. They are most often people with deeper levels of insecurity and low self-opinion. This can manifest itself in a rebellious attitude. Such types feel as if it is them against the world. They must assert their will at all costs and resist any kind of change. They will do the opposite of what people suggest. They will seek advice for a particular problem or symptom, only to find dozens of reasons of why the advice given won’t work for them. The best thing to do is to play a game of mental judo with them. In judo you do not counter people’s moves with a thrust of your own but rather encourage their aggressive energy (resistance) in order to make them fall on their own. Here are some ways to put this into practice in everyday life.
Use their emotions: In the book Change, the therapist authors (Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland, and Richard Fisch) discuss the case of a rebellious teenager, suspended from school by the principal because he was caught dealing drugs. He was still to do his homework at home but was forbidden to be on campus. This would put a big dent in his drug-dealing business. The boy burned with the desire to get vengeance.
The mother consulted a therapist, who told her to do the following: explain to the son that the principal believed only students who attended class in person could do well. In the principal’s mind, by keeping the boy away from school he was ensuring he would fail. If he did better by working at home than in class, this would embarrass the principal. Better to not try too hard this semester and get on the good side of the principal by proving him right. Of course, such advice was designed to play into his emotions. Now he desired nothing more than to embarrass the principal and so threw himself into his homework with great energy, the goal of the therapist all along. In essence, the idea is not to counter people’s strong emotions but to move with them and find a way to channel them in a productive direction.
Use their language: The therapist Milton Erickson (see chapter 3) described the following case that he had treated: A husband came to him for advice, although he seemed quite set on doing what he wanted anyway. He and his wife came from very religious families and had married mostly to please their parents. The husband and wife were very religious as well. Their honeymoon, however, had been a disaster. They found sex very awkward and did not feel like they were in love. The husband decided it was not anyone’s fault but that they should get “a friendly divorce.” Erickson readily agreed with him and suggested exactly how to bring about this “friendly divorce.” He instructed him to reserve a room at a hotel. They were to have one final “friendly” night together before the divorce. They were also to have one last “friendly” glass of champagne, one last “friendly” kiss between them, and so on. These instructions virtually ensured the wife’s seduction by her husband. As Erickson had hoped, the husband followed his instructions, the couple had an exciting evening together, and they happily decided to remain married.
Erickson intuited that the husband did not really want a divorce and that the two of them felt awkward because of their religious backgrounds. They were both deeply insecure about their physical desires, yet resistant to any kind of change. Erickson used the husband’s language and his desire for divorce but found a way to gently redirect the energy toward something much different. When you use people’s words back at them, it has a hypnotic effect. How can they not follow what you suggest when it is exactly the words they have used?
Use their rigidity: A pawnbroker’s son once came to the great eighteenth-century Zen master Hakuin with the following problem: he wanted to get his father to practice Buddhism, but the man pretended to be too busy with his bookkeeping to have time for even a single chant or prayer. Hakuin knew the pawnbroker—he was an inveterate miser who was only using this as an excuse to avoid religion, which he considered a waste of time. Hakuin advised the boy to tell his father that the Zen master himself would buy from him each prayer and chant that he did on a daily basis. It was strictly a business deal.
Of course the pawnbroker was very happy with the deal—he could shut his son up and make money in the process. Each day he presented Hakuin with his bill for the prayers, and Hakuin duly paid him. But on the seventh day he failed to show up. It seemed that he had gotten so caught up in the chanting that he had forgotten to count how many prayers he had done. A few days later he admitted to Hakuin he had become completely taken up with the chants, felt so much better, and did not need to be paid anymore. He soon became a very generous donor to Hakuin’s temple.
When people are rigid in their opposition to something, it stems from deep fear of change and the uncertainty it could bring. They must have everything on their terms and feel in control. You play into their hands if you try with all your advice to encourage change—it gives them something to react against and justifies their rigidity. They become more stubborn. Stop fighting with such people and use the actual nature of their rigid behavior to effect a gentle change that could lead to something greater. On their own, they discover something new (like the power of Buddhist prayer), and on their own they might take this further, all set up by your judo maneuver.
Keep in mind the following: people often won’t do what others ask them to do, because they simply want to assert their will. If you heartily agree with their rebellion and tell them to keep on doing what they’re doing, it now means that if they do so they are following your advice, which is distasteful to them. They may very well rebel again and assert their will in the opposite direction, which is what you wanted all along—the essence of reverse psychology.
The Flexible Mind—Self-strategies
You find it frustrating when people resist your good ideas out of sheer stubbornness, but you are largely unaware of how the same problem—your own stubbornness—afflicts you and limits your creative powers.
As children our minds were remarkably flexible. We could learn at a rate that far surpasses our adult capacities. We can attribute much of the source of this power to our feelings of weakness and vulnerability. Sensing our inferiority in relation to those older than us, we felt highly motivated to learn. We were also genuinely curious and hungry for new information. We were open to the influence of parents, peers, and teachers.
In adolescence many of us had the experience of falling under the sway of a great book or writer. We became entranced by the novel ideas in the book, and because we were so open to influence, these early encounters with exciting ideas sank deeply into our minds and became part of our own thought processes, affecting us decades after we absorbed them. Such influences enriched our mental landscape, and in fact our intelligence depends on the ability to absorb the lessons and ideas of those who are older and wiser.
Just as the body tightens with age, however, so does the mind. And just as our sense of weakness and vulnerability motivated the desire to learn, so does our creeping sense of superiority slowly close us off to new ideas and influences. Some may advocate that we all become more skeptical in the modern world, but in fact a far greater danger comes from the increasing closing of the mind that afflicts us as individuals as we get older, and seems to be afflicting our culture in general.
Let us define the ideal state of the mind as one that retains the flexibility of youth along with the reasoning powers of the adult. Such a mind is open to the influence of others. And just as you use strategies to melt people’s resistance, you must do the same on yourself, working to soften up your rigid mental patterns.
To reach such an ideal, we must first adopt the key tenet of the Socratic philosophy. One of Socrates’s earliest admirers was a young man named Chaerephon. Frustrated that more Athenians did not revere Socrates as he himself did, Chaerephon visited the Oracle of Delphi and posed a question: “Is there a wiser man than Socrates in all of Athens?” The oracle answered no.
Chaerephon felt vindicated in his admiration of Socrates and rushed to tell his mentor the good news. Socrates, however, being a humble man, was not at all pleased to hear this and was determined to prove the oracle wrong. He visited many people, each eminent in their own field—politics, the arts, business—and asked them many questions. When they kept to knowledge of their field, they seemed quite intelligent. But then they would expatiate on all kinds of subjects about which they clearly knew nothing. On such subjects they merely spouted the conventional wisdom. They did not think through any of these ideas.
Finally Socrates had to admit that the oracle was indeed accurate—he was wiser than all the others because he was aware of his own ignorance. Over and over again he examined and reexamined his own ideas, seeing inadequacies and infantile emotions lodged within them. His motto in life had become “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The charm of Socrates, what made him so devilishly fascinating to the youth of Athens, was the supreme openness of his mind. In essence, Socrates assumed the weaker, vulnerable position of the ignorant child, always asking questions.
Think of it this way: We like to scoff at the superstitious and irrational ideas that most people held in the seventeenth century. Imagine how those of the twenty-fifth century will scoff at ours. Our knowledge of the world is limited, despite the advances of science. Our ideas are conditioned by the prejudices instilled in us by our parents, by our culture, and by the historical period we live in. They are further limited by the increasing rigidity of the mind. A bit more humility about what we know would make us all more curious and interested in a wider range of ideas.
When it comes to the ideas and opinions you hold, see them as toys or building blocks that you are playing with. Some you will keep, others you will knock down, but your spirit remains flexible and playful.
To take this further, you can adopt a strategy promulgated by Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who really wants to get to know something new (be it a person, an event, a book) does well to entertain it with all possible love and to avert his eyes quickly from everything in it he finds inimical, repellent, false, indeed to banish it from mind: so that, for example, he allows the author of a book the longest start and then, like one watching a race, desires with beating heart that he may reach his goal. For with this procedure one penetrates to the heart of the new thing, to the point that actually moves it: and precisely this is what is meant by getting to know it. If one has gone this far, reason can afterwards make its reservations; that over-estimation, that temporary suspension of the critical pendulum, was only an artifice for luring forth the soul of the thing.” Even in writing that is inimical to your own ideas there is often something that rings true, which represents the “soul of the thing.” Opening yourself up to its influence in this way should become part of your mental habits, allowing you to better understand things, even to criticize them properly. Sometimes, however, that “soul” will move you as well and gain some influence, enriching your mind in the process.
Upon occasion it is good to let go of your deepest set of rules and restrictions. The great fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui posted at the door of his temple a list of thirty-three rules his monks were to abide by or be thrown out. Many of the rules dealt with alcohol, which was strictly forbidden. One night, to totally disconcert his literal-minded monks, he showed up to a talk completely drunk. He never apologized or repeated it, but the lesson was simple: such rules are merely guidelines, and to demonstrate our freedom we must violate them from time to time.
Finally, when it comes to your own self-opinion, try to have some ironic distance from it. Make yourself aware of its existence and how it operates within you. Come to terms with the fact that you are not as free and autonomous as you like to believe. You do conform to the opinions of the groups you belong to; you do buy products because of subliminal influence; you can be manipulated. Realize as well that you are not as good as the idealized image of your self-opinion. Like everyone else, you can be quite self-absorbed and obsessed with your own agenda. With this awareness, you will not feel the need to be validated by others. Instead you will work at making yourself truly independent and concerned with the welfare of others, as opposed to staying attached to the illusion of your self-opinion.
There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it. To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s temperament into another as though it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume: there was a real joy in that—perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limited and vulgar as our own, an age grossly carnal in its pleasures, and grossly common in its aims.
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
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