How to persuade with questions

Posted on October 24, 2018

Persuasion is hard. And yet, it’s the whole point of politics. If we argue, whine or rant but never persuade, we have accomplished nothing.

People are tough to persuade because cognitive biases skew human reasoning. Facts and logic, sadly, are insufficient. The main challenge in political debate is “confirmation bias,” the cognitive bias where people seek out information that conforms to what they already believe while—inside their heads—they ignore or refute information that disproves their preconceptions. It’s self-deception.

Our advice for overcoming confirmation bias, in a nutshell, is: (1) Begin in agreement with your listeners; (2) Use progressive values, which continue that agreement; and (3) Show your listeners how they (not strangers) benefit from your policies. Above all, don’t tell them “you’re wrong,” which will absolutely end any chance of persuasion.

But what if you are trying to persuade someone who is fairly close to being a conservative partisan? What if it’s extremely difficult to find an avenue to begin in agreement? What if voicing any of your beliefs sounds an awful lot like declaring “you’re wrong”?

Then ask your listener a question.

Unless it’s done poorly, a question gets you around psychological roadblocks. At the same time, if you ask it well, a question establishes the topic of discussion. Let’s face it, we’re focusing on the kind of listener who doesn’t agree with us much of the time—otherwise s/he wouldn’t be undecided about the highly polarized issues of the day.

So ideally, pick a topic where almost everyone is on the same side, like local traffic or environmental problems, the cost of health insurance or prescription drugs, unfair banking practices, wages that don’t achieve the American Dream, tax loopholes for the rich and powerful, dishonest officeholders, or the overall need for change.

It is less effective to ask an open-ended question like “what’s the biggest problem in your neighborhood” (which is a common question asked while walking door-to-door). The problem is, the answer might leave you no opportunity for agreement. (E.g.: “It’s those darn immigrants.”)

Similarly, let’s say you are having a discussion and things are going badly. Use a question to divert the listener away from the topic where you clearly disagree and can’t win. Change the subject!

Obviously, asking questions is an ancient rhetorical tactic, as old as Socrates. And one of its great advantages is the point of the Socratic Method—well designed questions stimulate critical thinking in the listener. Such questions draw out people’s presuppositions and let them be examined without your listeners feelings that they are under attack.

In short, while you can’t say “you’re wrong,” a listener can say “maybe you’re right.”