Influence and persuasion: What academia since Aristotle missed

September 2, 2016 by Joshua
in Leadership

I don’t study philosophy, but I’ve been reading up on Aristotle and his Rhetoric, which is about persuasion. I’d rather put myself out there and have someone call me ignorant and foolish and set me straight than remain blissfully ignorant.

I teach and write about persuasion. This stuff is interesting to me.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric treats three main modes of influence, mostly based in words:

  • Credibility (ethos)
  • Emotions and psychology of the audience (pathos)
  • Patterns of reasoning (logos)

I learned techniques rooted in this theory in college—how to write an effective essay. The problem is that most academics aren’t persuasive and don’t know how to persuade. Leaders do. How many professors do you consider effective leaders beyond their classes?

I’ve found “To convince” means “to provoke debate” and rarely works. While I don’t know all of academia, I think they’re missing the most important parts of influence, which is behavior. Non-verbal behavior plays a big role in communication beyond words. More effective than that is getting people to try things.

If you agreed to go dancing with your friends on a Friday night but then one had a difficult Friday and wants to stay in, you can ethos, pathos, and logos all you want, but you won’t logic them out of their malaise. Put some music on and get them on their feet, however, and you have chance.

When I lead workshops on, say, how to make meaningful connections, people almost always push back and argue against asking people “What’s your passion?”. I answer a few questions, but I’ve learned words don’t help. You know what does? Having them try the exercise. After the exercise, they don’t argue. In fact, they overwhelmingly want to try more.

Next time you want to persuade someone, I recommend a little try-before-you-buy or any of the many behavior-related techniques effective leaders use.

Why I wrote this post

As I wrote, I’ve come across Aristotle a bunch lately and found something missing. I figured putting myself out there would be the most effective way to find out what I might be missing. Please feel free to point out what I’m missing.

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