In the past two years, I’ve become deeply interested in persuasion for one simple reason – I used to suck at it.
Don’t let the recent success of raising over $90,000 on Kickstarter, having the trailer for my film go viral with over 400,000 views in a week, or the fact persuasion guru Scott Adams linked me fool you. Most of my life has been spent autistically explaining things to people, and then having them yell at me because they got triggered.
Since writing about persuasion, I’ve had people repeatedly ask me for advice about the topic. All the advice I could give them would really come down to one word. It’s the thing I didn’t realize when I was younger, and possibly the hardest thing for any human being to work on.
Empathy is the ultimate persuasion tool.
To be clear – empathy is the ability to understand what another person is thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
In order to persuade someone, you first have have to know where they are. You can’t lead someone to a new place, if you don’t know where they’re starting. If I say “you should join me, because of our shared identity as Italians” – and you aren’t Italian – the argument will fall on deaf ears. However, if your Italian heritage is deeply important to your identity, then that argument might be very persuasive.
Many of the arguments I used to make and the arguments I see others make come from assuming the other person is like you, shares your unique ideas, feelings, and experiences, and will react to new information the same way you do, rather then respecting their unique perspective and starting point.
Understanding People’s Pain
There’s a story about two skeptics who attended a new age healing workshop. They found the workshop ridiculous and unscientific. When the workshop organizers took questions, one attendee asked if the healing process they were selling would cure insomnia. They said it would. Another asked if it would help him stay awake longer. They said it would. The skeptics stood up and pointed out that it was impossible for the same process to help someone both stay awake and fall asleep. They proceeded to debunk the organizers’ claims.
At the end of the seminar, there were twice as many sign-ups as usual.
When the skeptics questioned attendees – why did you sign up when we debunked everything? – they learned the attendees had real problems. One was in physical pain from his inability to sleep. He didn’t want to be talked out of something that might treat his problem. While the skeptics arguments were valid, those arguments wouldn’t solve their problems. The healing method might. This was not a philosophical exercise for the attendees. They were in real pain.
In other words – while their argument was sound, the skeptics hadn’t empathized with the people they were speaking to.
Sort Yourself Out
When I first sought persuasion advice, it came from a place of manipulation. “How do I get this other person to do what I want?” And based on the questions I’ve gotten, I suspect I’m not the only one who’s thought this way.
This comes from a valid place. We all have a need to be seen and heard. When our needs aren’t met, we look for ways to fulfill them. The idea that there’s a secret formula by which you can get people to do what you want is very appealing, especially if you have unmet needs. Ironically, this selfish attitude is the opposite of what works in persuasion. The real question to ask isn’t “how do I get what I want” but “what does the other person want and need – and is there a way I can get both our needs met?”
But how can you focus on others needs when yours are still crying out unmet?
There – you’re going to have to empathize with your own unmet needs. You’re going to have to do the inner work of deeply listening to them and meeting them from within. If this sounds like therapy, yes, that’s one form it could take. It’s had a different names over the years. Inner work. Spirituality. Sorting yourself out. But if you do it, you’ll be practicing the skill of empathy, whether you know it or not.
If you practice empathy with yourself, you can practice it with others.
Empathy Will Cost You Your Pride
I suspect more people don’t open themselves up to empathy because empathy goes both ways.
The moment you really understand someone else’s perspective, you might realize it’s valid. You might realize that your simple narratives about them aren’t true. You may or may not change their perspective, but yours will definitely shift.
For one of the best examples of this I know, check out this talk by Cassie Jaye, the director of The Red Pill.
Empathy will cost you your pride.
Pride is the belief that you’re better than others because reasons. It’s a feeling or belief of superiority.
How many YouTube videos, articles, and even “news” stories can be boiled down to, “look at this person I’m better than!” Look at that SJW. That racist. That feminist. That Trump supporter. That loser. Isn’t it nice to feel better than that person? Mmmmm… Pride.
Some of you won’t be able to let go of that. That’s okay. Just know that you won’t be as effective a persuader, and most of the time you’ll be responding to your idea of a person, rather than who they actually are.
Empathy Plus Technique
Once you have empathy, all other persuasion techniques will work. NLP, hypnosis, Robert Cialdini’s work, marketing techniques – all of it. But you won’t be able to pace and lead your audience till you know where they are.
So start with empathy. Start with really trying to understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of other people. And if you’re not ready to do that yet, practice empathy with your own unmet needs.
Read More: How To Recommend Movies
P.S. You might be interested in my documentary, because you want to be an empathic person.