Persuasive communication

Everything I Say Is Wrong

Everything I write and everything I teach is wrong—sometimes, under certain circumstances.

Often in my classes someone will say something like, “I tried that and it didn’t work.” Or, “I didn’t do it that way and I was successful.” And they are usually right when they tell me that.

There are no absolutes in persuasion, and if someone tells you there is, they are fooling themselves or trying to fool you. Communication, thinking and decision making are too varied and capricious to be perfectly predictable, because people can be so different, situations can be complex, and times can change.

That’s why honest experts allow for the occasional deviation from the rule book. Any rule that tells you what to in a specific situation is actually based on a probability. When someone says, do this in order to succeed, what they actually mean is: “If you do x, there is a ___% chance that y will happen.”[1] The corollary to that statement is that there is always a chance that y will not happen.

Of course, they’re not going to say it this way. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are purposely hiding something from you. When you teach someone, you have to give it to them in a usable format, and if you delivered all your advice and instruction in the above format, you would quickly confuse your charges, leading to little or no learning, or give them so little confidence that they would never try your advice. Besides, for many rules, the percentage probability that y will happen is high enough that the rule becomes a reliable guide for most of the situations that they will face. You would be foolish to ask for another card if you’re holding 19 in blackjack, even if it is no guarantee of winning.

So, if you’re the one learning the rules, my point is not that you should immediately question every guideline or bit of advice you read or learn in a training class, or start breaking rules just because you feel like it. Just because a rule does not work in some circumstances does not mean it’s useless. In fact, the only reliable way to develop the judgment to decide when a rule does not apply is to learn the process and the rules so thoroughly that you can recognize when an exception is called for.

Here’s why: when an unexpected question or situation comes up during a sales call or presentation, you will not have time for cautious and deep deliberation about your response. You’ll have to use your judgment and intuition; but I’m not referring to some magical, being-in-tune-with-the-universe type of gut feel. I’m referring to Gary Klein’s definition of intuition as rapid pattern recognition: expert intuition is the ability to instantly and accurately size up the situation and respond correctly. In his studies of the application of expert judgment, he found that experts don’t compare options at the moment of decision—once they’ve sized up the situation, the decision becomes obvious to them. How does an expert develop that ability? Only by becoming so deeply immersed in the fundamentals of his or her domain, which means learning and following the rules thoroughly. In other words, to know when to break the rules, you have to be thoroughly steeped in them.

Sometimes you have to break the rules, but you had better know which rule you’re breaking, why, and what the risks are. For example, you should always plan your important sales calls, but be prepared to throw away the plan and improvise on the fly when something totally unexpected happens. The customer is always right, except sometimes they are so misinformed that you have to hit them right between the eyes with the truth. Always be passionate in presenting your point of view, except when it blinds you to the legitimate perspectives of others who may not share your passion.

If you are the one dispensing the rules, realize that there is no one perfect answer that applies every single time. Have the humility and the open mind to learn from experience, especially in a fluid environment. Also, beware the curse of knowledge. There may be exceptions to the rule that are so obvious that you don’t realize they’re not obvious to other people.

The humility of acknowledging that everything you say may be wrong under certain circumstances might even help politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington come together to produce practical and lasting legislation. It’s the only way to get things done when each side has “principles” that they hold dear.

Practical wisdom starts with accepting that every rule is wrong sometimes—maybe even this one.

 


[1] This is called “stripping” the claim, and it comes from Daniel Willingham’s book, When Can You Trust the Experts?

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1 Comment
  • […] But another side of me was actually pleased to get the information. It’s healthy to have your most cherished ideas challenged occasionally, and to get a reminder that the world is not as simple as we try to make it. It keeps us from locking in to rigid certainties that stop growth and learning. It preserves a touch of skepticism and humility. It reinforces the fact that in persuasion, there are no absolutes. […]

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