We hear it all the time: If you want to change someone’s mind, show your passion. Own your beliefs. Speak your truth.

It’s surprising how durable that idea is, considering how many experts have argued otherwise over the years.

The latest are academics Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, who conducted a series of experiments on persuasion and published their findings in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Feinberg and Willer tested the persuasive strategies of political liberals and conservatives on the topics of same-sex marriage, military spending, and the use of English as the official language of the United States.

What they discovered is that even when people know that to win others over to their point of view, they should frame their position in terms of the moral values of the people they hope to persuade, they resist doing it.

In one experiment, Feinberg and Willer asked liberals to write a persuasive argument in favor of same-sex marriage aimed at convincing conservatives, and offered a cash prize to the participant who wrote the most powerful message.

Despite the financial incentive, only 9 percent of liberals made arguments that would appeal to politically conservative notions of morality – while 69 percent stuck to arguments based on their own values of fairness and equality.

Marketing guru Seth Godin, author of All Marketers Are Liars, recently took up a similar theme in his blog to explain why empathetic persuasion is so difficult.

“To many people,” he says, “it feels manipulative or insincere or even morally wrong to momentarily take the other person’s point of view when trying to advance an argument that we already believe in.”

In his 1936 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie laments the “thousands of salesmen, pounding the pavements today, tired, discouraged, and underpaid” because they are unable to think in terms of their customer’s needs and wants. But what if they could change their perspective and their strategy?

He tells a simple story about the power of empathetic salesmanship.

“I go fishing up in Maine every summer,” he writes. “Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream; but I find that for some strange reason fish prefer worms. So when I go fishing, I don’t think about what I want. I think about what they want. I don’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangle a worm or a grasshopper in front of the fish and say: ‘Wouldn’t you like to have that?’

Why not use the same common sense when fishing for men?”


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