The Persuasion Paradox

Keith June 24th, 2013

“One way of talking that inhibits the exchange of knowledge is speaking with conviction.  That may seem contrary to what we’ve all learned in communication and leadership workshops, where one of the lessons often taught is to speak with confidence – “sound like you mean it”. Yet, as I examine conversations in the work setting, stating an idea with conviction tends to send a signal to others that the speaker is closed to new ideas.  When speaking with conviction people sound as though no other idea is possible, as though the answer is, or should be, obvious. “


This quote is from Nancy Dixon’s recent blog post Bringing the Flow of Knowledge to a Standstill by Speaking with Conviction, cited by David Gurteen in his post To improve learning – don’t speak or write with conviction.

David also ties this concept in with a related concept about learning by Ellen Langer, from her book The Power of Mindful Learning. Her point is that if we are taught to do something by repetitive practice to the point that we can do it without thinking then we are unable to discovery or deal with situations that may require a different approach.

I would also like to introduce a third concept here – the idea that listening to inspirational teachers may be more enjoyable than listening to boring speakers, but that we actually don’t retain learning any better  from the inspirational speaker. This idea comes from recent research by Shana Carpenter, discussed by Annie Murphy Paul in the post Do We Actually Learn Anything From TED Talks?.

The main thrust of all this is that when we try to convince someone of something we believe they need to learn, no matter how skilfully, we are not increasing their actual learning. In fact, we actually may harden their resistance to learning it – and the more we try, they more they may dislike us.

So how should we approach learning?

As David summarises, “If you wish to convince someone then you have to be open to a two way conversation of equals.” Ellen Langer refers to “sideways learning” – a process of “… maintaining a mindful state… characterised by openness to novelty, alertness to distinction… [and] awareness of multiple perspectives”. This is where conversational techniques and peer learning have enormous power. David’s Knowledge Café technique is one tool for achieving this.

Does this mean that we need to change everything?

Whenever we encounter new research findings like these, it can be easy to decide that we need to throw out all of our old ideas and introduce something entirely new. But no matter how much we introduce conversation, mindfulness and discovery, two plus two will always equal four. (Given a specific number system, of course.)  Does this mean that there’s a flaw in this thinking? Are we missing something here?

Context is everything

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Maslow

Another element of Langer’s sideways learning is “sensitivity to different contexts”. The failure of learning by repetitive practice is the difficulty of then becoming aware of the need to unlearn the ingrained practice when the environment changes and we need a new approach.

I have written here before about complexity and David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework – I have a brief presentation about it on SlideShare, and the Wikipedia article covers it in more detail. The main point of the model is to understand how to address different problems based on their context – particularly when dealing with organisations.

Simple problems can be addressed with simple approaches – best practice applies here. The more complicated something becomes, the more analytical and sophisticated our approach needs to be – this is the domain of experts. Both of these contexts are considered to be ordered, and conventional wisdom applies. Cause and effect are either obvious, or can be worked out, and things are repeatable. This is where our conventional learning techniques can still be effectively applied. There is less room for negotiation.

However, like Maslow’s hammer, these approaches fail when we apply them to complex (or chaotic) contexts. And our organisations and learning needs are becoming increasingly complex. This is the unordered domain, and to be dogmatic and attempt to apply repetitive learning in this context is almost certain to lead to failure.

So if you are in a position of needing to educate someone, think about the context. Is this a situation where things are fluid, where there is rich interaction between people, where there is uncertainty? If so, then turn down the conviction. This doesn’t mean that you “dumb down” the subject; it just means that you use a different approach. Open up conversation, help your learners to explore, allow people to introduce new ideas, and go in with an open mind.

This is bad news for the people who wish to use standardised assessment in formal education, because it means that each class may be discussing different aspects of a complex topic. But our world is becoming increasingly less standardised itself, and our education needs to keep up with this.

To take this one more step, using less dogmatic and more conversational approaches may also help when facing today’s bigger complex problems – industry restructuring, climate change, global conflict and financial crises.

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