How to persuade one-on-one

Posted on September 21, 2022

Direct face-to-face persuasion is a bit different. When you talk to people at their doors (e.g., campaigning) or in their offices (e.g., lobbying), there are potential advantages, if you use them.

The big difference in face-to-face persuasion is . . . there’s no audience. When there’s an audience, one or both sides might (and in many cases should) play to the crowd. A debate or town meeting is a performance. If you’re talking to a group of people in front of a grocery store, it’s also much more of a performance than a conversation.

When there’s no audience, you can be more intentional and authentic.

1) You can disengage.

Much of the time nowadays, people are not persuadable. In those cases, arguments become painful and useless. If there is an audience, you usually have to continue the argument with no hope of persuading the person with whom you’re interacting. It’s a show. But if you’re engaged one-on-one with someone who is simply not persuadable, you can and should back off. You’re wasting time and emotional energy that would be better spent with other people. Similarly, sometimes you differ about a matter that’s not fundamentally important. In those cases, it’s usually better to back off that particular controversy in a friendly way: “That’s valuable information, thanks!” or “I really appreciate your point of view.” Then try to reengage on a different, more important topic. After all, no two people agree on everything.

2) You can clarify.

Very often, a disagreement between individuals is based on a misconception. You’re actually arguing about two different things. For example, you may favor building a sidewalk on one side of a particular street and the other person is thinking you mean the other side, or somewhere blocks away. Especially when the back-and-forth argument doesn’t seem to be making sense, stop and make sure you’re really in conflict over precisely the same thing. (It’s very hard to do this in front of an audience. People won’t admit the mistake.)

3) You can listen!

In political discussion and debate, we naturally make assumptions about the other person, particularly their factual knowledge and beliefs. We categorize people because that’s how politics usually works. But when you’re talking one-on-one, you should let go of preconceptions and listen to the other person’s unique voice. What does s/he really care about? What does s/he assume are the facts? If you listen closely, you will often find something you can agree upon. Find that point of agreement and you can persuade from a common ground. And even if you fail to persuade, people very much appreciate that you have listened. Many voters will feel “that candidate doesn’t agree with me but s/he cares, so I’ll give ‘em a chance.”

4) You can narrow your focus.

Whatever the point of your persuasion, there may very well be ten good reasons you’d like to mention. Obviously, you shouldn’t do that – limit arguments to three at the very most. But more important, when talking one-on-one you can and should customize your arguments to that person’s interests. If you’re lobbying a public official, you should research what that particular person cares about most. If you’re talking to individual voters, you should consider their particular neighborhood and any demographic information from the voter list, like age, family, and how long they’ve lived in the area. Unlike when you speak to a group, you can find some personal way to illustrate that the two of you are on the same side.

5) You can de-escalate.

You are not going to win an emotional conflict. If you want to persuade, don’t ever tell someone they’re “wrong.” If you trigger the other person’s negative emotions, the persuasion is over. Instead, stay specific, making narrow points based on facts and logic. If it looks like you’ve pressed the wrong button, think of a cool-headed, respectful way to de-escalate the argument. If that doesn’t work, disengage and don’t waste your time. Remain as positive as possible, smile and thank that person for their time.

You don’t have to “win” any argument. Persuasion doesn’t work that way. Earn respect and it will pay off down the road.