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The Art of Persuasion

Esther Ilana Rabi

As Ralph Waldo Emerson learned, coercion doesn’t work. If you want your opinion to be heard — and followed — you’ll need to learn the art of persuasion

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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ANYONE I KNOW? If you’re dealing with a stranger, finding commonality is a shortcut to developing a connection. When two strangers find they have something in common, they have the beginnings of a friendship. A few minutes of Jewish Geography can go a long way. Even the most superficial relationships give you some leverage in persuading people

R alph Waldo Emerson, one of the deepest and most prolific American thinkers of the 1800s, once wanted to shepherd his calf into the barn, but the animal wouldn’t budge. Mr. Emerson enlisted the help of his son, who pulled the calf toward the barn while Mr. Emerson pushed. But the calf, who didn’t want to leave the sweet grass and sunshine, stiffened his legs and refused to leave the pasture.

The housemaid, who was watching, understood that the calf wouldn’t move until he wanted to, so she put her fingers in his mouth and let him suck — something all young animals like — while she gently led him to his stall.

What the housemaid understood about cows applies to humans, too: No one likes to be browbeaten into doing what someone else wants them to do, even if it’s for their own good.

What are you supposed to do, then, when someone you care about is about to make a serious mistake? If you don’t stop your impulsive sister from mouthing off to her boss, she might lose her job. Or if you don’t convince the flight attendant to get you on that flight, you’ll miss your son’s wedding. With the stakes so high, you might be tempted to scream, yell, or do just about anything to get your point across. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson learned, coercion doesn’t work. If you want your opinion to be heard — and followed — you’ll need to learn the art of persuasion.

Help Her Be Who She Wants to Be

Let’s start with your sister, who calls you to practice the scathing remark she’s going to make to her boss. How can you help her understand the possible ramifications and reconsider?

“A fundamental principle in guiding people is never to manipulate, never to control, and never to make the choices for another person,” says Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, director of Neve Yerushalayim. “A person’s bechirah can’t be impinged upon, and if they suspect you’re trying to, they’ll head for the hills.”


But you can still nudge them in a direction you think they should go by helping them clarify the issues. By way of example, Rabbi Edelstein says he never persuades young adults to go to Neve. “I might help someone sort out the reasons she should or shouldn’t go to seminary. Then I can help her separate the substantive issues from the technical ones, like finances.

“She might think, ‘I can’t afford it,’ and put that into the equation. I help her decide if she wants to go independent of finances, and if she decides that she does, I help her tackle the finances as phase two of the decision-making process. People need clarity to make big decisions. I help them isolate the individual components so they can think about each one — and especially the big one — independently.”

Logic and hard facts, however, usually aren’t enough to convince someone to heed your good advice; it’s often the emotions that must be spoken to first, according to Nahva Follman, a Jerusalem-based licensed addiction counselor who is certified in cognitive behavioral therapy.

“The emotional center of the brain responds a full seven seconds before the conscious part — that’s the part you’re going to have to speak to,” she says. “You might spend half an hour with your sister, logically discussing her options and reaching an intelligent decision about what she should do, only to hear her respond, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but my heart’s not in it,’ or, ‘It sounds great, but I’m not feeling it.’ ” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 555)

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